The delta variant is quickly becoming the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. In fact, the variant is moving across the nation at such a rapid pace, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that it makes up roughly 80% of COVID cases in areas of the Midwest and upper mountain states, and 51.7% of all new COVID cases in the U.S. over the last month, according to the Washington Post.
But despite the fact that the delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading so quickly throughout the U.S., it remains a fairly new threat. As a result, people have a lot of questions about it, including: How can I know if I have the delta variant of COVID-19? Are the delta variant symptoms any different?
A regular COVID-19 test may not tell you which specific variant is afflicting you. And while it's possible that your symptoms may offer a clue, any differences would be minor, William Schaffner, MD, Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Refinery29. “The illness is pretty much the same, but there are nuances [of the delta variant] which are being discussed,” Dr. Schaffner explains. “Symptoms being discussed from the delta variant is that it causes less disruption of taste and smell. The other thing I’ve seen discussed is whether this illness has more or less diarrhea associated with it.”
But Dr. Schaffer adds that “from a practical point of view, there's nothing distinctive about symptoms of the delta variant.” You may be less likely to lose or notice a difference in your sense of taste or smell — but plenty of people with earlier strains of COVID-19 didn't experience a change in their taste or smell either. Like all the strains of COVID-19 that we've encountered so far, the delta variant could cause issues like a cough, shortness of breath, a fever, body aches, congestion, and more. But if you're trying to figure out if you have a certain variant, symptoms alone aren't enough to go on.
Besides symptoms, the delta variant behaves differently from other strains of COVID-19 in a few key ways, Dr. Schaffner says, including the speed at which people get infected and who in particular gets infected.
“[The delta variant] is more contagious and spreads more readily,” he explains. “What makes that so? The virologists and immunologists are working on that now, but it has the capacity to attach to the cells in the mucus membrane more readily. Now, when people confront the delta variant, it takes less of the virus to make you sick. It’s easier for it to initiate an infection.”
This threat of infection is obviously higher in people who are unvaccinated or half-vaccinated, a trend Dr. Schaffner says he’s seeing more in younger people and is backed by eye-opening statistics: Only 38 percent of people aged 18 to 29 in the U.S. received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of June.
Overall, while the delta variant may differ slightly from the standard COVID-19 strains, it’s still largely the same virus and will still be studied as such. Dr. Schaffner’s takeaway? To get vaccinated, plain and simple. “The vaccine still protects against [the delta variant],” he says.
The urgent need for vaccination is a universally agreed-upon sentiment backed by medical professionals, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Just last Thursday during an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Dr. Fauci was asked whether the approved COVID-19 vaccines work against the delta variant. “The answer is yes, it does,” he said during the sit-down. It doesn't get much clearer than that.