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How Does a Breakthrough COVID Infection Feel?

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Generally speaking, vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 and develop symptoms are prone to the same ones that an unvaccinated person might experience. These include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Loss of taste or smell can sometimes serve as telltale clue, although it doesn't happen to everyone.

As the contagious delta variant continues to thrive, more vaccinated Americans are developing “breakthrough infections.” These occur two weeks or more after completion of their vaccine regimen. No one knows exactly how often this is happening, because many breakthrough cases are completely asymptomatic and because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stopped tracking them, unless they lead to hospitalization or death.

AARP’s article entitled “This Is What a Breakthrough COVID Infection Feels Like” says that what’s likely different is the severity of symptoms. While a very bad headache, a very bad sore throat, or very bad gastrointestinal issues might be evidenced in the person who’s unvaccinated, those same symptoms would be less intense in a person who is vaccinated.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of serious cases around the U.S. are happening in unvaccinated people, with less than 1% of fully vaccinated people hospitalized with or have died from COVID-19. Older adults are roughly three-quarters of the small percentage of serious cases.

If you are suffering from cold-like symptoms that might signal COVID-19, the CDC recommends you get tested — even if you’ve been vaccinated. (The CDC also now recommends you get tested if you’re vaccinated but have had known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.)

While the official list of COVID-19 symptoms is long, the Zoe COVID Symptom Study — an app-based study that’s been collecting data from millions of global contributors — recently released a list of the top five symptoms users have experienced and organized them based on vaccination status. They say that headache was the most common symptom, for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Sore throat also made the list, as well as a runny nose. However, fever was first only among those who were unvaccinated. Sneezing made the list only for those who were fully or partially vaccinated.

“I have not heard that sneezing is common with breakthrough cases, but overall, I would say that the vast majority of breakthrough infections, if symptomatic, are much milder in vaccinated persons,” says Kristin Mondy, M.D., associate professor and chief of the infectious diseases division at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

While the notion that you could still get COVID-19 post-vaccination might be unsettling. The vaccines never promised 100%, but they still come pretty darn close.

“The vaccine is safe and overall, incredibly effective — at least 88 percent against the newest delta variant, [and] the risk of serious disease is very, very low for an average individual who has received a COVID-19 vaccine compared to those who are unvaccinated,” says Mondy. “I can’t stress enough that if everyone does their part and gets vaccinated, then we can achieve herd immunity and prevent the spread of new variants [as well as protect] vulnerable populations.”

Reference: AARP (Aug. 3, 2021) “This Is What a Breakthrough COVID Infection Feels Like”

Suggested Key Terms: Elder Care, COVID-19 (coronavirus), Senior Health