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What "Mild" Omicron Really Feels Like

"Mild" doesn't mean minimal symptoms.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Although the super-contagious Omicron variant has sent COVID cases rocketing to record levels, the good news, experts have said, is that Omicron seems to produce relatively mild illness. The word "mild" has also been used to describe the vast majority of COVID infections that occur after vaccination (so-called "breakthrough" cases). But a month into Omicron's global rise and a year after vaccines became widely available, people who've contracted "mild" COVID have been raising a complaint: It doesn't feel too mild. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

"A Bad Flu" That's "Dragged On"

Young sick woman lies tired in bed with a face mask and holds her head because of a headache.
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"Been avoiding this but … covid is the absolute pits," New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted on Monday. "Been lucky it isn't worse, but at its worst it was like a bad flu and it's dragged on/lingered. I'm vaxxed and boostered and still got a breakthrough case. Would welcome folks not continuing to say it's all mild." 

She added: "​​It also would have been much worse without a vaccine and the booster!!"

2

"Crappy, Tired, Exhausted"

Woman lying at bed.
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"Even disease considered 'mild' can still be uncomfortable and prolonged," noted CNN on Jan. 7. For example: Chicago dietitian Michelle Cordes said she was vaccinated and boosted and took all precautions to avoid COVID but contracted a breakthrough case that knocked her and other family members for a loop. 

"We all developed a cough. We all had post-nasal drip. I had the itchy kind of throat, and my husband and I both had night sweats for like four nights in a row," she said. "We've felt crappy and tired. On Monday, we took our tree down, and by one o'clock, we were all exhausted." Cordes said she spent three days in her pajamas, which she'd never done before.

RELATED: Strange COVID Symptoms No One Talks About 

3

"My Eyeballs Started to Ache"

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When NPR reporter Will Stone described his own "mild" breakthrough case last summer, it sounded like an Edgar Allan Poe outtake: "Fatigue had enveloped me like a weighted blanket…[n]ext, a headache clamped down on the back of my skull. Then my eyeballs started to ache. And soon enough, everything tasted like nothing…It was a miserable five days. My legs and arms ached, my fever crept up to 103 and every few hours of sleep would leave my sheets drenched in sweat."

RELATED: "Most People are Going to Get COVID," but You Can Cheat It. Here's How.

4

"Mild" Doesn't Mean Minimal Symptoms

Woman with a cold and high fever
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The disconnect between what we usually consider "mild" illness—maybe a scratchy throat or a cold that allowed you to soldier on through work or school—and what the medical community has designated as "mild COVID" is a matter of medical semantics. Early in the pandemic, it was necessary to separate COVID cases that were severe enough to require hospitalization from … everything else. Turns out, that "everything else" can be pretty debilitating. 

"Use of the word 'mild' isn't meant to minimize your experience," Dr. Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told CNN. "When we or when the CDC or the NIH says 'mild,' we really mean it didn't make you sick enough to go to the hospital. But when you get a flu-like illness that puts you in bed, that's not mild to you."

Case in point: "At board of health meetings I've heard discussions of people designated as 'mild' but they couldn't get out of bed for three days," Doron told NPR.

And people with mild illness can develop "Long COVID," symptoms that can linger for months or years after the coronavirus has cleared the body. 

RELATED: Dr. Fauci Identifies "Possible Cause" of Long COVID 

5

What to Do

Woman have her blood pressure checked by female doctor.
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If you contract COVID, it's important to stay in touch with your doctor and let them know exactly what's going on, said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "Be very specific about symptoms, including temperature, any difficulty breathing and your oxygen saturation rate if you are using a pulse oximeter," he advised.

Medical designations like "mild COVID" may seem insensitive, but they serve a purpose—to alert both patients and doctors to developing emergencies. "We need these benchmarks to put people and their doctors on alert that symptoms could be progressing and they need to be seen," said Schaffner. "Always tell the doctor if you—or someone with you —just have this feeling that things are going south." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more