COVID or Allergies? Top Symptoms Are Identical, Doctors Say

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Sept. 18, 2023 – The most common symptoms of COVID-19 have become so mild that it’s getting harder to tell the illness from allergies or the common cold, according to personal accounts from doctors.

Although COVID hospitalizations continue their monthslong increase, several doctors said that a sore throat, followed by congestion, are now the hallmark symptoms. (In the past, COVID included telltale signs like a dry cough or a lost sense of taste or smell.)

"It isn’t the same typical symptoms that we were seeing before. It’s a lot of congestion, sometimes sneezing, usually a mild sore throat," Erick Eiting, MD, MPH, a New York City emergency department doctor, told NBC News.

These recent symptom reports are in line with findings from last winter that showed a sore throat had become the most common symptom among Omicron subvariants of the virus. 

In data updated over the weekend by the CDC for the 2-week period ending Sept. 16, the most common three strains of the virus remained the same, and all were part of the Omicron family: EG.5 continued to top charts at nearly 25% of COVID infections, while FL.1.5.1 edged into second place with nearly 14%. In third position was XBB.1.16 at 10%. A strain called HV.1, which is also part of the XBB lineage, jumped from nearly 5% to more than 8%.

The strain BA.2.86 continues to be detected in wastewater in the U.S., but a new update from the CDC posted Friday afternoon stated that it remains unclear how the highly mutated version of the virus spreads, compared to other variants. BA.2.86 raised worldwide concern a couple of weeks ago because differences in the virus’s structure posed the potential for it to behave differently than previous strains. 

The CDC said Friday that it would cease weekly posts about BA.2.86 and instead move to releasing updates only “when significant additional information becomes available.” The strain is so uncommon that it isn’t even on the latest tracker list of more than 25 variants actively causing infections in the U.S.

“At this time, BA.2.86 does not appear to be rapidly increasing or driving increases in infections or hospitalizations in the United States,” the CDC update stated.