White Coat, Black Art

Think you may have Omicron? Here are things you can do

The Omicron coronavirus variant is very transmissible, making it likely you or someone you know will catch it. Here's what to do if you think you have Omicron and when you might need to go to the hospital.

Symptoms to watch for and when to seek hospital care

Some symptoms of Omicron infection include fever, dry cough, runny nose, aches and pains, nausea and diarrhea. You may not lose your sense of taste or smell with this variant, however, according to infectious diseases specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton. (Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

The Omicron variant is so transmissible and so widespread across Canada that it's likely that you know someone who has it right now, or you have it yourself.

The variant is shattering case records and sending test positivity rates soaring. As of Thursday, Ontario's COVID-19 test positivity rate is 29.2 per cent, while Quebec's health minister said the health-care system is missing about 20,000 workers who have been infected with or exposed to the virus. 

"I think that people [are] having a very hard time wrapping their head around how much that Omicron has changed the rules of the game and how we have to change how we handle it in terms of our own individual risks, as well as our behaviour within a society," said Dr. Matthew Oughton, in an interview with Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC podcast The Dose

The incubation period for Omicron is shorter compared to previous variants, and is about three days, says Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. 

Rules and guidance around what to do are changing rapidly, but there are a few key things you need to know right now.

How to know if you have Omicron

In many parts of Canada, it can be extremely difficult to get access to PCR testing to determine if you have COVID — and that's if you meet the criteria. Rapid antigen tests may be just as hard to find.

If you have the symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection, "right now the chances that it's Omicron are very, very high," said Oughton.

Those symptoms include sore throat, runny nose, aches and pains, a dry cough, fever, nausea and diarrhea. Oughton noted that he is seeing fewer people who experience a loss of taste or smell with Omicron as compared to previous variants, although it is still happening to some.

For many people who have two or three doses of a COVID vaccine and who get Omicron, they'll find their symptoms can be managed at home. Dr. Erin O'Connor says to drink plenty of fluids, and stay warm inside. (Shutterstock)

If you do have access to a rapid test, test yourself a day or so after a suspected exposure, and don't assume that your negative result means you're in the clear.

"Especially if you have compatible symptoms, take a negative result with not just one grain of salt, but with maybe a whole truckload of salt," said Oughton.

If someone else in your household has tested positive or has symptoms, it's probably safe to assume you do, too.

"What we're seeing with … pretty early data is household attack rates are very, very high with Omicron, even compared to other variants of SARS-CoV-2, and that was already fairly high," said Oughton.

WATCH | Tips for treating your Omicron symptoms:

How to treat COVID-19 at home

11 months ago
Duration 2:07
A doctor and pharmacist say many treatments for common colds and flu will also be helpful for double-vaccinated adults who are recovering from COVID-19 at home.

If you can, it's important to get vaccinated or boosted.

For healthy people with two or three doses of vaccine the symptoms are fairly mild and tend to be over within a few days from when people tested positive, says Dr. Erin O'Connor. She's the deputy medical director of the emergency departments at the University Health Network in Toronto.

"Many patients we're seeing are actually testing positive before they have symptoms, so they're testing positive on a rapid antigen," she said. Those patients go on to develop symptoms two or three days later, and then often find their symptoms start improving three or four days after that.

How to treat Omicron at home

If you know or think you've got Omicron, stay home. If you can, isolate from the rest of your household.

"If you have the luxury of a living arrangement where you can have your own sleeping quarters and bathroom and ideally, sort of a sectioned off area of the house, I guess that's ideal," said Oughton.

"But of course, that's really not the reality for many, maybe even most Canadians who are facing this."

So, he recommends masking at home, and opening windows to improve ventilation when you can, to help limit transmission.  Oughton is mindful many places across Canada may be experiencing cold weather, so open windows may be a limited solution.

It can be difficult to isolate in your home if you live with others, so if you know or suspect you have Omicron, you should mask inside. (illpaxphotomatic/Shutterstock)

Stay warm and drink plenty of liquids, says Dr. O'Connor. She recommends taking ibuprofen (also known by the brand name Advil) or acetaminophen (also known as Tylenol), or cold and flu medication that includes those painkillers. Be sure to check with your pharmacist if you are taking other medications that those painkillers might interfere with.

"At the moment, we don't have medications that we can prescribe that someone can take at home. For those patients with asthma who are having a wheeze with this, we may prescribe puffers for them to help out," she said.

O'Connor says that some people with greater medical risk are being sent home from UHN hospitals with home oxygen monitors, also known as pulse oximeters. She notes they can also be purchased online.

The device monitors blood oxygen levels. Most people will have a saturation of between 97 and 100 per cent, she says.

"It can drop a little bit lower than that and still be safe. But at 92 per cent, we'd be wanting you to come in for further examination," she said.

When you should seek hospital care

Severe chest pains and worsening or severe shortness of breath are signs you should head to the hospital. 

Very sick patients often feel short of breath, says Dr. Lisa Salamon, an emergency physician with Scarborough Health Network in Toronto.

"Sometimes they don't realize how short of breath they are until it's too late, particularly in younger patients," she said. "It was really surprising, a lot of these sick patients that I was seeing, their oxygen saturations were extremely low and they just realized how short of breath they were when they came in."

People who experience severe shortness of breath and chest pains should seek medical care, says Dr. Matthew Oughton. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Dr. Oughton says other warning signs include persistent fever that lasts at least two days, if not more, and heart palpitations.

"If your heart [is] missing beats or skipping beats or if your heart's really racing, those would be the other warning signs that really should be taken very seriously," he said.

O'Connor says that many emergency departments across Canada are offering virtual consultations, and she suggests people try that first before coming to hospital. 

"If you do have the option, please use the virtual ED type of models to speak to a provider who can give you some advice about whether you need to head in or not," she said.

Salamon also noted it's important for people who are seriously ill with COVID, or another medical condition, to seek care at the hospital without hesitation.

"People have to understand, if they feel sick, we don't want them not coming to the emergency department because they're scared. We want them to seek the appropriate medical care," she said.

How to choose a mask that protects

If you're still wearing a single-ply cloth mask, it won't offer you enough protection and it's time to search out something better.

The best masks are N95s or equivalents, such as Canadian-made FN95 masks, as well as KN95s and KF94s. 

Oughton cautions that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently warned about counterfeit respirators, like N95 masks, and says he wouldn't be surprised if Canadians experience the same problems.

Marketplace also found some N95s held up better than others in testing.

WATCH | CBC's Marketplace has tips on how to spot counterfeit masks:

How to tell if your respirator or N95-style mask is counterfeit

2 years ago
Duration 6:28
CBC Marketplace tested KN95 and KF94 masks sold online and at big box stores. Half of them didn’t offer the level of protection they’re supposed to.

In the meantime, you can adapt existing masks for better protection to filter particles in the environment.

"If you use the cloth mask as an overlay over top of a surgical mask or a medical mask ... that sort of improves the quality of the fit on your face," said Oughton.


Written and produced by Andrea Bellemare and Vik Adhopia with files from Melanie Glanz. 

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