The UK is experiencing another wave of covid infections, with the number of cases rising by half a million in a week.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), an estimated 2.3 million people had the virus last week, an increase of 32% compared to the previous week.
While this is the highest number recorded since late April, it is still lower than the spike seen in late March, where Omicron BA.2 (the stealth variant) led to a record 4.9 million cases.
But more than two years after the pandemic and several variants later, how do we differentiate a mild infection from a more serious one?
This is what you need to know.
Why are cases increasing?
The slope in the number of cases is reduced to two new strains, BA.4 and BA.5, which are subvariants of Omicron. They were labeled “variants of concern” by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control in May.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) states that BA.5 is growing 35% faster than BA.2, while BA.4 is growing just 1% faster, meaning BA.5 is dominant.
These two strains spread very easily and seem to evade antibody responses from those who have natural immunity and have been fully vaccinated.
They supposedly have mutations in their spike proteins, allowing them to retrain their attacks on human lung cells.
Vaccines will continue to protect against serious diseases according to specialists, although the increase in hospitalizations remains a cause for concern.
It has been around six months since most people in the UK received their booster shot as part of the winter roll-out programme, which means the effectiveness of the vaccine is waning.
Increased socializing around major events like the Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend and the return of festivals like Glastonbury will also have accelerated the number of cases.
What are the symptoms of BA.4 and BA.5?
Although tea With new concerns surrounding the new sub-variants, the UKHSA states that there is “currently no evidence” that they cause more severe disease than previous strains, or that they present new symptoms.
Difficulty breathing and loss of taste or smell were more common with earlier strains of the virus, such as Alpha.
So how do you know if you have a serious infection?
There is a key sign that distinguishes mild infections from more serious illnesses.
Dr. Dan Goyal, consultant in internal medicine at NHS Highland, pointed out that it all comes down to breathing.
In a Twitter thread, he wrote: “To be absolutely clear, shortness of breath is NOT a ‘normal’ feature of Covid.
“Shortness of breath indicates severe covid (or worse) until proven otherwise.”
He suggested that silent hypoxia is an additional major concern and “the most challenging part of managing Covid”.
This is when the oxygen in the blood is very low, but the patient is not aware of any related symptoms. Dr. Goyal describes it as “the lungs are swollen but you don’t feel short of breath.”
To detect this, he recommended purchasing a pulse oximeter from your local pharmacist. This measures how much oxygen is in your blood.
Dr. Goyal said that levels of 95% or higher are fine, but below 95% medical information is needed. When the oximeter shows oxygen levels of 93% or 94%, that means you need help from your GP and if it’s 92% or less, you need to go to the ER.
Other signs include flu-like symptoms, severe fatigue from minor exertion (like climbing stairs), any fever that lasts more than a few days, and any signs of confusion are other warning signs.
What to do if you test positive for Covid?
Now that there are no official measures to reduce transmission among the general public, it is unclear how people are supposed to respond if they test positive.
It’s best to self-isolate if you can. If you have a mild case, it should clear up in a matter of days. However, this is not the case for everyone and some people may develop serious illness. Any breathing problem is a danger sign and needs medical attention.
Dr. Goyal recommended that people ask themselves, “If this wasn’t Covid, would I contact a doctor?”
Straining to continue regular activities can worsen recovery, so wait until you are completely better before returning to your normal daily life.
If you are in a high-risk group, you may be eligible for antiviral therapies that reduce hospitalization and the overall health risk of contracting Covid.
However, you must take them before the end of day five of symptom onset for them to take effect.
How can you avoid Covid?
Ventilation and masks remain key to protecting against infection.
Covid can stay in the air for hours, so open doors and windows whenever possible.
Vaccines are “a game changer,” says Dr. Goyal, in terms of lessening the severity of the virus, meaning even those who are hospitalized have a good chance of recovery if fully vaccinated.
Getting fit also reduces the chances of getting serious illnesses, along with wearing the most protective FFP2 masks.
As Dr. Goyal noted: “The long and the short of [is] the fewer infections you have, the better, and the longer it takes to get infected, the better the treatments. A little bit of effort pays off right now.”