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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a sore throat or runny nose likely meant you were suffering from a cold — and some rest and fluids would help you get back to your regular self within a few days. However, with COVID-19 symptoms overlapping with the cold and flu, the diagnosis is not as clear based on symptoms alone.
To add to the confusion, there's a new COVID-19 variant. Cases linked to the Omicron variant are soaring around the world as researchers race to find out more about the new strain.
What is the COVID-19 Omicron variant?
Omicron is a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 and was first reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24 after it was detected in South Africa. It has since spread to multiple countries, including Canada.
Omicron has been classified as a variant of concern by the WHO and the organization says it is coordinating with many researchers around the world to better understand the new strain.
Is Omicron more infectious than other variants?
Omicron has a large number of mutations, which could mean the virus acts differently from other variants that are circulating, according to the WHO.
As for its spread, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains the variant will likely spread more easily than previous strains. However, it’s still too early to know how it compares to the Delta variant in that regard.
“Omicron has a bunch of mutations in an area that might make it more transmittable and it looks like it likely is more transmittable, but the exact mechanism is not clear yet,” said Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “It will at least get around some of the protection from infection that vaccines provide, but there’s still good protection so far from severe disease and death.”
How to tell the difference between Omicron and the common cold
With the possibility of many Canadians getting sick this cold season, many people are wondering how symptoms of a regular cold differ from something more serious like Omicron. However, making that distinction is more difficult than it sounds.
The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract — your nose and throat — according to the Mayo Clinic. Someone with a cold may experience a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough and body aches.
COVID-19 is also a respiratory virus, and someone who is infected will experience similar symptoms. In some cases gastrointestinal symptoms, like diarrhea and nausea, can also overlap between the coronavirus and the cold.
The one symptom you can experience with COVID-19 and not with influenza is loss of smell. However, many people with the coronavirus don’t lose their sense of smell and Barrett says it’s not a “useful tool to differentiate between the two.”
With both infections giving off similar effects, self-diagnosing is not a safe option.
When experiencing any of the mentioned symptoms, the only way to know for sure is to get tested.
What about the difference between Omicron and other variants?
It's still too early to know for sure, but some scientists and doctors have indicated that the Omicron variant generally results in less severe symptoms than the Delta variant.
Some health experts have said that symptoms include night sweats, fatigue, mild muscles aches and a scratchy, dry throat. And while early evidence may indicate the Omicron variant results in more mild symptoms among those with two (and especially three) vaccines, the picture is starkly different for unvaccinated patients.
Health officials say they’re worried, but not panicked about fast spread of Omicron
With cases of Omicron climbing across the country and the world, experts believe the variant will become the dominant strain very soon.
In newly released modelling data Ontario’s Science Advisory Table suggests the new variant will become the dominant strain in the province this week.
Barrett is concerned about how rapidly Omicron is spreading, but says she isn't panicking yet.
“We do have to be careful what we do in the next number of weeks and so I’m concerned it’s spreading very quickly and it has the ability at least decrease the effectiveness of two doses of vaccine. We think a third dose can help to get around that fact,” Barrett told Yahoo Canada.
What you can do to stay safe
By now the public is well versed in ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and experts advise more of the same.
“I think it’s ambitious and somewhat naive to think that just keeping people from travelling is going to change the amount of Omicron in this country,” Barrett said. “What we do inside our borders and in our own towns and everyday life is far more important.”
The World Health Organization says it will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available on Omicron. When it comes to what you can be doing, the recommendations haven’t changed.
Wearing a good mask (experts recently advised Canadians ditch their single-layer cloth masks in favour of medical masks), social distancing especially when indoors, staying home when sick and washing your hands regularly are good practices everyone should be maintaining throughout the cold season and the pandemic. And of course, get your booster. Health officials are urging Canadians that the best way to protect from the Omicron variant right now is to get your third COVID-19 vaccine shot when you are eligible.