This winter is here to remind you that we are still in the midst of a pandemic, even as the world is (seemingly) “normal” around us.
COVID cases are on the rise throughout the country as we face a new variant, XBB.1.5, which is said to be potentially the most immune-evasive variant we’ve experienced — meaning it will have an easier time infecting people.
But just how worried do you need to be if you’ve had a recent COVID infection? Are you more protected? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer ― but there are a few points you should know, according to experts:
The level of protection someone gets after a COVID infection varies from person to person.
Exactly how long protection lasts after a COVID infection isn’t one-size-fits-all. A few factors make it impossible to say exactly how long you’re protected from reinfection.
Earlier in the pandemic, experts theorized most people had about a 90-day immunity window. However, according to Dr. Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, there have been times when someone has been reinfected a few weeks after their original bout of sickness and times when someone is protected for months and months. With these new, more transmissible variants, there is no way to predict which category you’ll fall into.
“Often the immunity from prior infection or vaccination protects people from severe disease, but one of the challenges in this pandemic is people vary so much in their immune responses,” Ray said. “Both because of named immunocompromised states as well as individualized variation. It is very hard to provide generalized guidance.”
This individualized variation includes your viral load (or the amount of virus in your body) and your antibody response to the infection, said Dr. Jodie Guest, the vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.
If “you didn’t have a super high viral load and your antibodies didn’t really rev up — which would mean you had a really slight infection the first time — your body’s not going to remember that quite as well,” which will put you at heightened risk for reinfection, Guest said.
But just because you had a mild infection does not mean you had a low viral load and your antibodies didn’t react, either. Some people ― especially if they’re fully vaccinated ― experience mild symptoms with a higher viral load. This makes it impossible to predict how long you’re safe from reinfection.
On top of that, we don’t have natural protection against new variants.
According to Guest, people do not have natural immunity against new variants, because of the simple fact that the new variant hasn’t existed until very recently. And, when a new variant arrives, any protection that does exist from previous COVID infections is unknown.
So, if you had COVID a few months ago before XBB was prevalent, you may not have immunity against it.
“One variant doesn’t necessarily protect you as well to the next variant,” Guest said. When it comes to this new subvariant in particular, “we don’t fully know how it evades our antibodies right now,” Guest said.
Variants and subvariants want to be more contagious as they evolve, so it’s reasonable to think that XBB.1.5 is stickier and more able to infect people.
Remember that COVID infections have other impacts on your health, too.
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but you don’t want to get reinfected with COVID-19 — even if you expect to have a mild infection.
“Repeated infections are associated with significant elevations in risk of cardiovascular, mental health and other conditions,” Ray said. “In studies, [there’s a] 30 to 50% increase in risk across multiple age groups, so people should be thinking twice about just getting an infection casually.”
He added that we’ll only know the full impact of repeated COVID infections in long-term retrospect.
There’s also the risk of long COVID, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of June 2022, 1 in 5 U.S. adults had long COVID.
On top of all of that, an infection also means you could spread the virus to loved ones. And that virus spread is what causes new variants to develop.
“XBB.1.5 evolved in the U.S. Northeast probably from variants that came from elsewhere, and if everybody did a little bit more to try and limit spread we might have fewer infections, less evolution and fewer variants cropping up in the future,” Ray said. And, truly, who doesn’t want that?
Even if you had COVID recently, take precautions.
Unfortunately, there is no set timeline for how long you’re protected from COVID-19 after an infection. So, it’s important to take precautions so you don’t get sick again and put yourself or others at risk for complications.
You should follow public health guidelines to keep you well — wear a mask indoors, wash your hands for 20 seconds, stay home if you’re sick and test before seeing high-risk people.
Vaccination is also key to reducing your risk of severe disease.
“It’s never too late to get the latest booster that’s out there and it’s also not too late to start with your vaccine series — they are still your best method of protection for COVID-19,” Guest said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.