COVID-19 has been a presence for years now, so you probably have at least some idea of what signs of the virus to look for. But the virus has changed over time—and so have COVID symptoms.
The EG.5 variant (aka Eris) now makes up more than 17% of new COVID cases in the U.S., and it’s only expected to continue to grow. With that, it’s understandable to have questions about what new COVID variant symptoms look like in 2023.
At the same time, COVID hasn’t been on many people’s radar for a few months. What should you do if you test positive these days? Doctors break it all down.
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What is the EG.5, aka Eris, variant?
Eris is a descendent of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, explains William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Think of Omicron as the ‘grandfather’ of Eris,” he says. “Eris is highly contagious, as was Omicron, but it is not causing more severe disease. That’s very, very good.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has spoken about the rise of Eris, noting in an initial risk evaluation that “the public health risk posed by EG.5 is evaluated as low at the global level.”
What are COVID symptoms in 2023?
So far, Eris “seems to be the same in terms of symptoms,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., a professor and the chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. Those can include, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
“Most people will have an upper respiratory tract infection, but some people will develop more serious disease, which will be a lower respiratory tract infection,” Dr. Russo says. “Some people develop non-respiratory tract symptoms, like diarrhea.”
Conjunctivitis, aka pink eye, may also be a symptom, Dr. Schaffner says.
Overall, Dr. Russo says that Eris “is behaving like other Omicron variants in terms of symptoms.” One thing that’s less likely with Eris, though, is loss of taste and smell, Dr. Russo says.
Will you need a new booster vaccine?
Back in June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would ask COVID vaccine makers to focus on using a single component in their vaccines that is targeted at the XBB.1.5 variant, which is a descendent of Omicron.
“The new booster is going to be a good match for Eris,” Dr. Russo says. “It’s only two amino acids difference in the spike protein.”
There is a COVID-19 booster currently available based on previous formulations. But, if you don’t fall into a high-risk category for severe complications from COVID-19, Dr. Russo recommends waiting until September, when the new vaccine is expected to roll out.
If you’re considered high risk for severe complications from COVID-19, Dr. Russo says there are a few options to consider. “If you’re going to be really careful and aren’t going to any functions where you can’t wear a mask, I would hold off and get the new booster when it’s available,” he says. “However, if you are high risk but there’s an event coming up where you know you won’t wear a mask, I would go ahead and get the old hybrid booster. It’s better to protect yourself with the waning immunity if you’re high risk.”
There aren’t currently recommendations on who should get the new booster (and when), but they should be issued soon-ish, Dr. Schaffner says. His advice: “Listen to the recommendations. I would certainly enthusiastically support getting it.”
While Dr. Schaffner acknowledges that Eris is causing mild illness, he stresses that “mild” means something different to the medical community than it does for everyone else. “‘Mild’ means that you don’t need to be hospitalized,” he says. “If you get Eris, you can feel miserable for two to three days, at least. Not everyone who gets Eris will say, ‘Gee, that was mild.’ It can put you out of sorts and make you feel miserable.”
Dr. Schaffner points out that the new booster won’t just offer protection through the fall. “It will help protect against serious disease going through the winter,” he says. “That’s where we expect a notable increase in COVID.”
What to do if you test positive for COVID
If you test positive for COVID, Dr. Russo recommends contacting your primary care physician, if you have one. Antiviral treatments like Paxlovid could help shorten how long you’re sick and lower your risk of developing serious complications from COVID, including long COVID, he says. Note: Anti-viral medications work best when they’re taken as soon as possible, so it’s important to test yourself and call your doctor ASAP if you have symptoms.
The CDC also recommends that you isolate for at least five days from when you first developed symptoms of the virus. If you need to be around others, the CDC recommends wearing a high quality mask. Isolation can end after day five or when you’re fever-free without the use of medication.
Dr. Schaffner acknowledges that “not everyone is doing that” when it comes to following isolation guidelines. “They are reverting to their usual way of doing things, which I don’t endorse,” he says. If you test positive for COVID-19, he says it’s really best to stay home—both for your health and to help keep others from getting sick.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.