Omicron is more than the flu. Why you should wear a mask, get a booster and avoid crowds.
As cases of COVID-19 once again surge in the U.S., you probably have a lot of questions. What is this new variant? Can I get it if I already had COVID-19? How can I protect myself? And why do I need to be so careful?
There are still lots of unknowns about omicron. That’s causing people to make assumptions about this variant that may or may not be true. Don’t be misled by what “people are saying.” Here are answers to 5 common questions based on what doctors know right now.
People say omicron is just like a cold or the flu. If that’s true, why should I wear a mask?
You shouldn’t assume omicron is no big deal. Although early indications are that omicron may cause less severe disease than earlier variants, more data is needed before this can be confirmed. If you have a higher risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19 because you have an underlying medical condition or are not vaccinated, you’re still at risk of getting very sick from omicron. The one thing scientists are seeing is that omicron is more transmissible than earlier variants. Wearing a mask may help slow the spread.
I already had COVID-19. Doesn’t that mean I can’t get it again?
Having COVID-19 before doesn’t seem to stop people from getting infected again with omicron. It may reduce the chance of severe illness, but there’s no guarantee. Whether you already had COVID-19 or have been vaccinated, immunity decreases over time—somewhere between 3 and 6 months after the last vaccine, booster or infection, depending on your age and the health of your immune system.
I heard vaccines may not be that effective against omicron. So why should I get a booster?
It’s true that omicron is causing a higher number of breakthrough cases than we’ve seen before. However, symptoms are usually milder in people who have been vaccinated. Vaccines still help a lot when it comes to preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death. Boosters appear to provide more protection against omicron than the initial vaccine series because the booster revs up antibody levels. If you have not yet gotten a booster and you are eligible (or if you haven’t gotten your initial vaccines), now is a great time to get a shot.
Everyone is getting omicron. If I test positive, should I assume I have it, too?
The omicron variant spreads so easily that there’s a good chance that if you get sick, you have omicron. However, the delta variant hasn’t gone away and it may still be what’s making you sick. No matter what variant you have, avoid contact with others if you test positive, rest and monitor your symptoms. Get medical help immediately if you develop these symptoms:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent chest pain or pressure
- Bluish lips or face
- Sudden or new confusion
- Difficulty waking or staying awake
It seems likely I’m going to get omicron. Is there anything I can do to avoid it?
Omicron is the most contagious variant we’ve seen to date, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way to protect yourself from it. The best way to avoid getting omicron is to do the things that have kept you safe from previous variants—get vaccinated, get boosted if you are eligible, wear a mask, avoid crowds, practice social distancing and wash your hands often. Take precautions even if you’re vaccinated and boosted, since omicron is spreading so easily right now. One of the best ways to lower your risk of serious illness from any strain of COVID-19 is to improve your overall health by managing your weight and exercising more.
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Date Last Reviewed: January 4, 2022
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD