The time from when you get infected with COVID to when you start showing symptoms has changed since March 2020. Experts explain why.

Here's How Quickly You Can Get Infected With BA.5 After An Exposure

Early in the pandemic, an exposure to COVID meant waiting anxiously for many days to see if you were infected. Now, the window is getting smaller and smaller, according to a new review published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The study, conducted by scientists in Beijing, found that COVID’s incubation time has decreased significantly with every new variant. Omicron, which is the current dominant variant in the United States, has the shortest time between infection and symptoms.

A shorter incubation period means COVID can spread more easily. Since there is no longer a 7-to-10-day window between infection and symptoms, the virus is building up faster and doesn’t have to hang out in a person for a period of days before infecting someone else.

According to David Souleles, the campus public health response team director at the University of California, Irvine, when you become symptomatic faster, you have more of the virus circulating in your system. This makes you more likely to spread the sickness to someone else.

The shorter incubation period is one of the ways the virus has mutated to become more contagious, explained Dr. Gregory Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic. 

Just how much more contagious are these current strains? Poland explained that “if [omicron] had shown up and not the original strain [in 2020], we wouldn’t be talking about 1 out of 308 Americans being dead, we would probably be talking about 1 out of 200.”

This all may feel pretty grim, and rightfully so. But, there are ways you can keep yourself and your loved ones safe. “The one thing people can continue to do is make sure they are up to date with their vaccinations,” Souleles said.

And you’ve heard this hundreds of times in the past two-plus years, but it’s important to follow the rules we know keep COVID from spreading ― especially as it’s more contagious than ever. 

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