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People are comparing BA.5 symptoms to meningitis, but COVID experts say they’re very different

Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images

  • BA.5 infections are dominating this summer.
  • Some people have complained of stiff necks, comparing COVID to meningitis.
  • But meningitis patients have persistent high fevers and feel very ill, whereas COVID patients might have more gastrointestinal issues and sore throats. 

The Omicron subvariant BA.5 has taken over this summer. In both the US and the UK, it’s now estimated to be responsible for around 70% of coronavirus infections. 

BA.5 is easier for us to catch than other variants, at least in part because it is more immune-evasive than other versions of the virus we’ve seen before. This quality can also make BA.5 more nimble at reinfecting people, just weeks or months after a prior COVID experience. 

Dr. Claire Taylor, a general practitioner in the UK, recently said on Twitter that her entire family got reinfected with what she suspects was BA.5, just 12 weeks after their initial Omicron infections in early 2022. 

“Even I was surprised to get it again so quickly,” she wrote.

She said her son, 9 years old, complained of a “painful stiff neck” and had a fever hovering close to 102 degrees Fahrenheit with his COVID reinfection. 

“First thought was meningitis,” she said.

But while it’s true that — genetically speaking — BA.5 has drifted further and further away from the Omicrons we knew in the winter, it’s not an entirely different virus, and it is not like meningitis.

Many of the signs and symptoms of a COVID infection now are still quite similar to what the signs of COVID were earlier this year. Infectious disease and long COVID experts say the issues Omicron presents with BA.5 aren’t typically comparable to meningitis.

Unlike COVID, meningitis involves higher fevers, more sensitivity to light, and stiffer necks

Meningitis is a swelling of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, caused by a serious bacterial or viral infection.

Dr. Julianne Burns, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Stanford Children’s Health in San Francisco, says that  the BA.5 symptoms she’s seen have remained similar to those of previous versions of Omicron. Neither she nor any of her colleagues have noticed “an increase in neck stiffness with COVID” recently.  

“Sore throat, fatigue, runny nose, cough, and headaches,” she told Insider, are some of the most common COVID symptoms she’s been seeing this summer.”You can get myalgias — muscle aches that make you not feel well — but it’s less specific to neck stiffness, more just general body aches.”

She isn’t seeing the hallmarks of meningitis in kids, either. The one defining feature of BA.5 in children is that they seem to be experiencing gastrointestinal issues more than adults with COVID, she said. “Diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of appetite — that can be a manifestation of COVID in kids.”

Meningitis exhaustion is very different to COVID brain fog, one doctor explained

Dr. Bruce Patterson, who treats long COVID patients of all ages, agreed.

“To me, the hallmark of meningitis is a very high fever,” he told Insider, adding that meningitis patients are generally more “obtunded,” meaning outright exhausted and debilitated, whereas with COVID, people might simply feel more “brain foggy.” 

Burns, on a similar note, said kids with meningitis are “wanting to lay in bed, not really move,” and “very irritable.” They may be sensitive to light, and have a high and persistent fever (above 101 degrees Fahrenheit for several days.) 

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