Why—and how—COVID-19 symptoms are changing right now

By Sy Mukherjee

When the novel coronavirus first reared its head in 2020, it came with some early flu-like symptoms—fever, aches, fatigue—along with novel ones like loss of taste or smell, the so-called “brain fog” referenced by many patients, making it difficult to think or concentrate. But new data suggests that this ever-mutating virus also has mutating symptoms—and while the exact reasons are still a bit unclear, it appears that one’s vaccination status (and whether or not you’ve received a booster) may play a significant role. 


The report comes via the COVID tracking app from the medical science company Zoe, in collaboration with researchers from King’s College London, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard, and Stanford University. With the Zoe COVID Symptom Study app, users can log their COVID-19 symptoms to provide a real-time heat map of sorts of the telltale signs of whatever version of the virus happens to be circulating at that point. 

This isn’t a limited clinical trial, but a crowdsourced real-world repository of what some 4 million COVID-19 patients who use the app are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. And the most recent data from Zoe’s patient-reported COVID symptoms app suggest that the original telltale signs for COVID-19—the loss of taste or smell (anosmia), the shortness of breath, and a fever—are no longer the primary symptoms. Irrespective of COVID-19 vaccination or booster status, however, a sore throat, runny nose, headache, and persistent cough all rank in the top five reported symptoms. And, strikingly, persistent sneezing appears to be a common symptom among the vaccinated who contract new COVID-19 variants. 

Why are the symptoms changing? The most telling takeaway from the data, and a consistent theme of the pandemic, is that people who have been vaccinated are far less likely to be hospitalized or become seriously ill. They also appear less likely to experience multiple symptoms or more severe symptoms, especially young people. But there are now emerging differences in symptoms within the tranches of the vaccinated, according to the data, and major differences from those who are unvaccinated. For instance, unvaccinated people still report a fever as a top symptom, which isn’t the case for those who have had one or two COVID-19 shots. 


“Curiously, we noticed that people who had been vaccinated and then tested positive for COVID-19 were more likely to report sneezing as a symptom compared with those without a jab,” wrote Zoe researchers on its website. The researchers also note that such symptoms as shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell have plummeted significantly in reported frequency—even in unvaccinated populations—suggesting “the symptoms as recorded previously are changing with the evolving variants of the virus.”

These symptoms and their frequency will likely continue to evolve along with the coronavirus. In the meantime, getting vaccinated remains the number one way to ward off the worst effects of COVID-19. And if you happen to find yourself sneezing frequently despite having your shots, it would be prudent to sneeze into your sleeves, wash your hands, mask up, get a test, and self-isolate if necessary. 

Fast Company