Every few months, it seems, there are discussions in the media about new COVID variants. Here's what you need to keep in mind about these coronavirus mutations. 

Where did this new COVID variant come from?

The COVID virus, SARS-CoV-2, like other viruses, infects a human cell and then replicates, or makes copies of itself. It frequently undergoes mutations during replication—these mutations can allow the virus to more easily infect humans and/or make the virus more resistant to our immune system. As millions of people around the world have been infected, and each infected person has billions of viral particles in their bodies at the peak of infection, it is no wonder that the virus evolves to produce new variants that are able to infect people despite past COVID infection or vaccination. 

How serious is the new COVID variant?

The World Health Organization tracks different variants and assigns them different statuses, such as Variant of Concern, Variant of Interest, or Variant Under Monitoring. As of May 2024, the most recent variant under monitoring that has attracted global attention is the FLiRT variant,  "spin-offs" of the Omicron variant that made the news in late 2021 and early 2022.The Omicron variant was noted for its ability to quickly spread, and we've seen that these FLiRT variants also spread quickly. However, Omicron and its variants also show a lower risk of serious clinical illness compared to other, slower-spreading variants, such as Delta. 

What are the symptoms of new COVID variants?

So far, the symptoms of all SARS-CoV-2 variants have been similar—cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue, shortness of breath, and loss of smell or taste. Not everyone infected with COVID strains will have the same symptoms, and some people may have mild to no symptoms while they are infected. 

If you do have symptoms of COVID, even if you think it's a common flu, it's important to take preventative measures to reduce the risk of spreading the disease. These measures include staying home and isolating as much as possible, wearing a mask, and practicing hand hygiene. 

Many individuals are able to recover from a COVID infection by staying home, resting, and using over-the-counter medications to help alleviate the symptoms. If you are experiencing trouble breathing, feel pain or pressure in the chest, or notice pale, gray or blue-tinted skin around the lips or nails, seek emergency medical attention.

How can I protect myself from new COVID strains?

There's no surefire way to avoid a COVID infection, but there are ways to minimize the risk. Staying up to date on your COVID vaccinations is the best way to reduce your risk of serious infection, especially for older people and those with compromised immune systems and their families. We often see waves of COVID infections in the summer as people are traveling and in the winter as people congregate more indoors, so those are the times to be especially vigilant. 

Leonard Mermel, DO

Leonard A. Mermel, DO

Dr. Leonard Mermel is an infectious diseases specialist and medical director of the department of epidemiology and infection control at Lifespan.