If you've been hearing talk of respiratory syncytial virus (commonly referred to as RSV) lately, it's because a number of respiratory viruses, including RSV, are spreading throughout the U.S. at unusually high levels this winter. In addition to rising cases of RSV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu hospitalization rates are also at their worst in more than a decade. Combine this with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and you have the perfect storm to create a "tripledemic" of respiratory viruses spreading throughout our community (and the country).
These viruses are hitting children's hospitals especially hard, with pediatric cases of the flu and RSV straining hospitals across the country. And while pediatric COVID-19 cases are declining in children, the COVID-19 virus is also still circulating at high levels. Luckily, with plenty of rest and fluids, most children should recover from these viruses (and the thousands of other viruses causing respiratory issues this winter) without needing medical attention. However, with the current surge in hospitalized patients, it's important to understand how to protect yourself and your loved ones this winter — especially for those with underlying lung conditions or very young children.
RSV, Flu & COVID-19: Spotting the Difference
Since early symptoms of COVID-19, flu and RSV all appear as upper respiratory infections, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to know which virus you're dealing with early on. If you or a loved one come down with common symptoms of these viruses — such as a cough, fever or runny nose — it's important to self-isolate until you understand what you’re dealing with and how long you should stay home.
The truth is, the only way to truly determine which virus is causing the infection is by getting tested by your doctor. You can start by taking an at-home COVID-19 test, however, remember that a negative rapid test result doesn't necessarily mean you're in the clear. If you do test positive, it's also important to know that it's possible to be infected with more than one virus at once (known as a coinfection). Again, you can't know for certain which infection you have from your symptoms alone. However, there are some subtle signs you can watch out for:
- RSV. RSV typically causes cold-like symptoms such as runny nose, cough, congestion and a distinctive, high-pitched "wheezing" sound. These symptoms are typically fairly mild and should improve within a week or two. However, for some people (especially young or immunocompromised children), RSV can become more severe and require hospitalization for dehydration or difficulty breathing.
- Flu. You're likely already familiar with the seasonal flu (influenza), which typically presents with symptoms of sore throat, nausea and vomiting, body aches and diarrhea. While symptoms can vary from mild to severe, a high fever is often accompanied with the flu and can be a tell-tale sign. Another distinctive sign of the flu is its sudden onset of symptoms, unlike COVID-19, which tends to appear more gradually.
- COVID-19. COVID-19 can be difficult to differentiate from other viruses, since its symptoms are very similar to RSV and the flu. Children infected with COVID-19 tend to have more mild symptoms (including fever, cough and runny nose), while adults may experience more severe symptoms, including trouble breathing. In fact, some people show no symptoms at all — which is why getting tested is so important! Some doctors have noted that reports of sore throat seem to be more common with recent omicron sub-variants.
Protecting Yourself (and Others) From Respiratory Illness
When it comes to keeping your family safe from serious respiratory illness this year, prevention is the best line of defense. This involves common best-practices that we've all learned during the last few years of the COVID-19 pandemic: regularly washing your hands with soap and water, sanitizing high-contact surfaces and getting vaccinated (make sure you’re up to date on flu, COVID-19, pneumococcus and pertussis vaccines). If you or a family member experience cold-like symptoms, stay home (and wear a mask in public if you must go out) to avoid spreading the illness.
Protect yourself and your loved ones this winter by taking proper precautions to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. If left untreated, severe cases of RSV, COVID-19 or the flu can develop into more serious conditions. Seek immediate medical attention if your child (or anyone at high risk) has a high fever, difficulty breathing or appears to have blue coloring (especially on their lips and nail beds).
This article first appeared in the January 2023 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.