Get Tested If You Have 'Cold' Symptoms As They Could Be Omicron Variant, Scientist Warns

A scientist has advised that people who think they may just have cold symptoms should get themselves tested for COVID, since "classic" COVID symptoms appear to be in the minority with Omicron in some locations.

It comes following data from the U.K.'s ZOE study app—a data-gathering tool used to study the symptoms of COVID and track the spread of the virus.

The U.K. has been one of the world's Omicron hotspots recently and the variant is expected to be the dominant one in the country by Christmas. In London, the country's capital, it's estimated to already be dominant.

Amid the rise in cases, the ZOE app has been tracking reported symptoms, and researchers decided to compare data from London in a week when Delta was dominant versus current data with Omicron in the mix.

The analysis found no clear differences in early symptoms between Delta and Omicron—but the top symptoms were different to what were considered "classic" symptoms of COVID at the start of the pandemic.

ZOE found that the top five symptoms reported from periods of time with both Delta and Omicron were a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and a sore throat.

This contrasts with what the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS) currently deems to be the "main" COVID symptoms as of December 17: a high temperature; a new, continuous cough; and a loss of or change to smell or taste.

It should be noted that data on Omicron is still coming in and scientists do not know everything about the variant, including symptoms.

Professor Tim Spector, lead scientist on the ZOE app, told Newsweek that people should be wary of having just a cold.

"It's clear at the moment that when we look particularly in areas with high Omicron rates, but also to some extent nationally, we're seeing a similar picture, which is that non-classical [COVID] symptoms now dominate.

"The current symptoms [in] most people, over 50 percent, feel just like a cold, which can be mild or severe. So your normal headache, sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, fatigue… and only a minority now get either fever, loss of smell or cough. Some of that is due to the fact that nearly everyone's vaccinated to some degree now, but also it is probably a change in the variant."

It's not just the U.K. that has been reporting what appear to be low rates of "classic" symptoms like loss of taste and smell.

In December, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released symptom data on 43 people with the Omicron variant between December 1 and December 8.

The most commonly reported symptoms were cough (89 percent), fatigue (65 percent), and congestion or runny nose (59 percent), the health agency said.

Fever was reported in 38 percent of the cases and loss of taste and smell reported in just 8 percent.

However, compared to the U.K.'s NHS the CDC lists a broader range of COVID symptoms including the "classic" ones but also muscle ache, headache, sore throat and more.

In any case, Spector said people should be cautious and get tested if they have cold symptoms.

"I think what's important is this has a public health impact, because many people still think they have colds, they can go out to a Christmas party, meet relatives, because they don't feel they've got COVID," he said.

"The U.K. government's policy is really too slow and lumbering in this; it's not telling people anything about cold-like symptoms.

"We should be absolutely avoiding large gatherings where you don't know whether anyone at that party has recent cold-like symptoms or has not had a lateral flow in the last couple of hours."

In a statement, a U.K. Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson told Newsweek: "Since the start of the pandemic we have acknowledged COVID-19 has a much longer list of symptoms than the ones used in the case definition and experts keep the list of symptoms under review."

In addition, Dr. Raghib Ali, a senior clinical research associate at the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, told Sky News this week that if people have cold symptoms like a sore throat, headache, tiredness, sneezing and a runny nose, "in London particularly […] it is more likely that you've got COVID, particularly Omicron, compared to a cold."

12/17/2021, 11:37 a.m. update: This article has been updated to include a comment from a U.K. DHSC spokesperson.

woman sneezing omicron
A stock image shows a woman sneezing. The Omicron variant has been detected in dozens of countries including the U.S. Getty Images