The ZOE COVID Symptom Study in the United Kingdom has been tracking reports of COVID-19 cases and symptoms for scientific research. A few months ago, the data from the study suggested that the most common symptom of COVID was either a runny nose or a headache.
Based on reports from 17,500 people who tested positive for COVID last week, the most common symptom now is having a sore throat, followed by a headache and nasal congestion, according to a BBC report.
With the Omicron subvariant BA.5 being one of the dominant COVID strains in the U.K., it’s easy to assume that the spread of the variant is causing the increasing reports of sore throats. However, experts say that is not necessarily the case.
Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, told Verywell that rising reports of sore throats do not really have to do with the BA.5 subvariant. Sore throat and headaches are common symptoms of COVID regardless of the variant, and this was true earlier in the pandemic with the Alpha variant.
David Dowdy, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell that the prevalence of sore throat as a COVID symptom might not be caused by BA.5, either.
It’s true that Omicron and its subvariants are more associated with upper respiratory symptoms compared to Delta and previous variants, but Dowdy is hesitant to attribute the increase in sore throat reports to the spread of BA.5.
“More likely, this reflects our own immune systems’ adaptation to the virus, as most people have been exposed to the virus multiple times by now,” said Dowdy. “But I would not read this as a major shift in the type of symptoms people have been experiencing over the past few months.”
While it can also be caused by allergies, a cold, or the flu, a sore throat can certainly be a sign that it’s time to take a COVID test—especially if you think you’ve been exposed.
Whether it turns out to be from COVID or another illness, there are some ways to ease a sore throat at home.
According to Halkitis, the key to sore throat relief is making sure your throat is lubricated, cool, and refreshed—for example, by drinking electrolyte solutions or having an electrolyte popsicle.
Dowdy recommends drinking plenty of fluids and considering over-the-counter (OTC) lozenges or sprays with local anesthetics to help numb the pain.
Halkitis said it’s important to monitor your symptoms and keep an eye on their trajectory. If they’re not getting better—or getting worse—it’s a sign the illness is progressing. At that point, it’s time to call your healthcare provider to make sure you get treatment to prevent complications.
Dowdy agreed but added that some people may not want to wait that long. “If you are older—70 or above—or have a compromised immune system, you should have a low threshold for going to see a doctor if you get COVID-19.”
For everyone else? Dowdy said you “should treat this as with any other illness. If you are having prolonged fever or chills or ever experience a change in your mental status, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, this would be a reason to seek medical care.”
A sore throat can be a symptom of COVID-19, regardless of which variant you have. If you have a sore throat and other COVID symptoms, get tested. If you haven’t already, get vaccinated and make sure you’re up to date on your boosters.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.