Like Swallowing Razor Blades: The Mystery of the Omicron Sore Throat
As we approached the third year of the pandemic, a new type of COVID emerged. While the gradual reopening of public events and relaxing of mask mandates certainly didn’t help matters, it was also highly contagious and capable of stealthily evading protections offered by the most recent vaccine boosters. As it became the dominant variant in the US, epidemiologists predicted it would inevitably infect everybody at some point. But there was a silver lining. The Omicron BA.2 subvariant also seemed to be milder than previous variants, and tended to produce upper respiratory symptoms more often than the severe lung damage seen earlier in the pandemic. And as with earlier variants, being vaccinated did seem to protect patients from life-threatening complications.
That didn’t mean it was objectively mild though. Fully vaccinated people were still finding themselves incapacitated for weeks by the new variant. And a large number experienced a particularly distressing symptom that didn’t seem to be common with earlier varieties.
Sore throat posts started popping up daily on a subreddit providing support for people who had tested positive for the virus. The desperation in these posts made it clear that this was no ordinary scratchy throat, but something more on the level of a third degree burn. People described it as the worst agony of their lives, comparing it to kidney stones and childbirth. Many users who had previously had tonsillectomies reported the COVID pain as being more severe, and one said it was even worse than having teeth pulled without anesthesia.
Some had been hospitalized and put on IV fluids after it rendered them incapable of drinking water for several days. Others spoke of being prescribed opioids and lidocaine mouthwash, which barely made a dent in the pain. Most were unable to sleep for longer than 20 minutes at a time, reeling in agony every time they swallowed their own saliva. As you may imagine, lack of sleep, food, and water can have dire consequences while trying to fight off a serious infection.
A large number of these individuals sought emergency medical care. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that many urgent care and ER physicians were unfamiliar with the cause or severity of this sore throat, shrugging off the…