As the weather turns colder, you may experience a second – or even third – round of Covid infection.
This raises a few questions: Will getting Covid again be similar to my previous experience? Will it be different than last time? Will my symptoms be more or less severe?
The answer to all say experts: It’s complicated. It depends on how long it has been since you last had Covid, your risk of serious illness and how long it has been since you were last vaccinated – if you were vaccinated at all.
“With reinfection, it’s kind of all over the map,” says Dr. Gabe Kelen, chair of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told CNBC Make It. “Broadly speaking, it seems to be milder. But there is no guarantee.”
Here’s what could happen during your reinfection, with an emphasis on the word “could,” experts say:
When it comes to immunity to vaccines and past infections, ‘timing is key’
When you recover from a Covid infection, you’ll show up with antibodies in your system “looking out for future infection,” says Dr. Roy Gulick, chief of infectious diseases at Weill Cornell Medicine. Not all of them will help your body fight the next infection, but those that do may lessen the amount or severity of your symptoms.
Similarly, if you stay current on your Covid vaccines, you’re at “lower risk” of serious illness, says Dr. Lucy Horton, an infectious disease expert at UC San Diego Health. Up-to-date means you complete your primary series and receive the booster shots you are eligible for.
Both of these factors can help prevent reinfection, but neither of them can guarantee you won’t get sick again — nor can they guarantee mild symptoms if you do. No vaccine or natural immunity is 100% effective, and these Covid immunity boosts generally last about three to four months before “optimal protection wears off,” Gulick says.
In other words, if it’s been a while since your last vaccine dose or infection, you may not benefit as much from your immune system’s symptom-fighting defenses.
“Timing is key,” says Gulick.
Omicron is a different experience than previous Covid variants
If you get Covid these days, you’re likely to experience the Omicron strain of the virus, or one of its subvariants. The Omicron family currently accounts for all US cases, with BA.5 accounting for 81.3% of them, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Omicron and its subvariants appear to generally cause less severe symptoms than previous Covid variants — which may be partly because Americans are better protected than ever by vaccines and past infections, Gulick says. So if you got Covid for the first time before omicron appeared in November 2021, reinfection may be milder the second time.
But a “mild” infection from the Omicron family is still not a piece of cake, even for otherwise healthy and vaccinated people – it causes a sore throat, headache, fatigue, cough, nasal congestion and muscle aches that can last for days at a time.
These symptoms could be worse if you’re at high risk for severe Covid, which the CDC says includes older, immune-compromised, or underlying medical conditions.
Last year, a small CDC study found that people who had contracted earlier strains of the virus before contracting Omicron had fewer symptoms the second time around. Importantly, the study only looked at the original Omicron strain, not any of its more recent subvariants.
Different Covid variants can also mean you have different symptoms, Gulick says. Studies show that sore throats are more commonly associated with the Omicron family than previous variants. Similarly, earlier variants like Delta were more likely to cause symptoms such as loss of taste or smell.
How to protect yourself from reinfection
Horton suggests increasing your protection against reinfection by getting an omicron-specific Covid booster that targets both the original Covid strain and the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of omicron, if you are authorized to do so.
You can also reduce the risk of reinfection by avoiding crowded indoor spaces and wearing a mask indoors if Covid is rampant in your area, Horton adds. Use the CDC’s data tracker to check your local infection and hospitalization rates.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable that some people will experience reinfection,” says Horton. “I think there are a lot of things people can do to protect themselves from that.”
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