Health and Wellness

Here's what might happen the second—or third—time you get Covid, experts say: 'There’s no guarantee'

Shot of a woman using cotton swab while doing coronavirus PCR test at home.
VioletaStoimenova | E+ | Getty Images

As the weather grows colder, you may find yourself experiencing a second — or even third — round of Covid infection.

That prompts a few questions: Will getting Covid again be similar to my previous experience? Will it be any different than last time? Will my symptoms be more or less severe?

The answer to all of them, experts say: It's complicated. It depends on how long it's been since you last had Covid, your risk of severe disease and how long it's been since you were last vaccinated — if you're vaccinated at all.

"With reinfection, it's kind of all over the map," Dr. Gabe Kelen, chair of emergency medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells CNBC Make It. "By and large, it seems milder. But there's no guarantee."

Here's what might happen during your reinfection, with an emphasis on the word "might," experts say:

With immunity from vaccines and previous infections, 'timing is key'

If you recover from a Covid infection, you'll emerge with antibodies in your system that "keep a lookout for a future infection," says Dr. Roy Gulick, chief of infectious diseases at Weill Cornell Medicine. Not all of them will help your body fight the next infection, but ones that do can decrease the amount or severity of your symptoms.

Similarly, staying up-to-date on your Covid vaccines puts you at "a decreased risk" of severe illness, says Dr. Lucy Horton, an infectious disease expert at UC San Diego Health. Up-to-date means to completing your primary series and receiving the booster shots you're eligible for.

Both of those factors can help prevent reinfection, but neither of them can guarantee you won't get sick again — nor can they guarantee mild symptoms if you do. No vaccine or natural immunity is 100% effective, and these Covid immunity boosts generally last about three to four months before "optimal protection begins to recede," Gulick says.

In other words, if it's been a while since your last vaccine dose or infection, you may not benefit as much from your immune system's symptom-fighting defenses.

"Timing is key," Gulick says.

Omicron is a different experience than previous Covid variants

These days, if you get Covid, you'll likely experience the virus' omicron strain or one of its subvariants. The omicron family currently makes up all U.S. cases, with BA.5 accounting for 81.3% of them, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Omicron and its subvariants generally appear to cause less severe symptoms than previous Covid variants — which could partly be because Americans are more protected with vaccines and previous infections than ever before, Gulick says. So, if you first got Covid before omicron emerged in November 2021, a reinfection may be more mild the second time around.

But a "mild" infection from the omicron family still isn't a walk in the park, even for people who are otherwise healthy and vaccinated — causing sore throats, headaches, fatigue, coughs, nasal congestion and muscle aches that can last for days at a time.

Those symptoms could be worse if you're at high risk of severe Covid, which includes people who are elderly, immunocompromised or have underlying medical conditions, according to the CDC.

Last year, a small CDC study found that people who got infected with previous strains of the virus before catching omicron experienced fewer symptoms the second time around. Importantly, the study only examined the original omicron strain, not any of its newer subvariants.

Different Covid variants may also cause you to experience different symptoms, Gulick says. Studies show that sore throats are more commonly associated with the omicron family than previous variants. Similarly, previous variants like delta more commonly caused symptoms like loss of taste or smell.

How to protect yourself against reinfection

Horton suggests increasing your protection against reinfection by getting an omicron-specific Covid booster, which targets both the original Covid strain and omicron's BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, if you're eligible.

You can also reduce your risk of getting reinfected by avoiding crowded indoor places and wearing a mask indoors if Covid is spreading at a high level in your area, Horton adds. Use the CDC's data tracker to check your local infection and hospitalization rates.

"I don't think it's inevitable that some people will experience reinfection," Horton says. "I think there's a lot of things people can do to protect themselves against it."

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