Now that the throes of the COVID pandemic are behind us, it might be easy to shrug off seasonal illness. However, with COVID-19 added to the list of seasonal concerns, along with RSV and the flu, it’s crucial to differentiate between the three as winter approaches. Understanding symptoms, preventive measures, and what to do if you are sick are all key ways of helping you and your family stay as healthy as possible this year.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus. Symptoms typically mimic that of the common cold, and tend to be mild. Most people recover within a week or two, however, RSV can be serious in some patients and can hit certain age groups, including infants and older adults, particularly hard, sometimes requiring hospitalization.
Common Symptoms of RSV
It can be easy to confuse RSV with a basic cold. Symptoms typically arise within four to six days after getting infected, and typically include:
- Runny nose
- Lack of appetite
Symptoms usually appear in stages. It’s worth noting that infants might only present with irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.
COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 that typically results in mild to moderate respiratory illness. Most people recover without special treatment or hospitalization, however, COVID-19 can become severe in some patients.
Common Symptoms of COVID-19
COVID-19 can present with a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe. People typically begin noticing symptoms within two to five days of exposure.
Symptoms of COVID-19 can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Fever or chills
- Muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- New loss of taste or smell
- Nausea or vomiting
As we learn more about new variants of COVID-19, we learn more about the symptoms and how they change. Symptoms can vary depending on someone’s vaccination status and how recently they have or have not received a COVID-19 booster.
With COVID-19 testing readily available, it’s important to test yourself or your family members if you’re concerned someone might have contracted the virus. If you or an immediate family member tests positive, it’s important for that person to be isolated for five days if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are subsiding. The CDC then recommends wearing a mask for the following five days to help minimize spreading the infection.
Understanding the Flu
Influenza, or more commonly, the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. These viruses infect the nose, throat, and in some cases, the lungs. The flu can cause mild to severe illness. Approximately 36,000 Americans die from the flu annually. Making sure to get your flu shot every year is the best way to avoid getting the flu.
Common Symptoms of the Flu
Unlike COVID-19 and RSV, flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly. These symptoms can include:
- Fever or feeling feverish or experiencing chills
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Muscle or body aches
- In some cases, people suffering from the flu might also have vomiting and diarrhea. These fly symptoms are more common in children than in adults.
Spotting the Differences Between RSV, COVID-19 and the Flu
It can be difficult to determine if you’re suffering from RSV, COVID or the flu given symptom overlap. The easiest way to rule out at least one of these – or know that you have it – is to test at home for COVID-19 at the onset of your symptoms. Testing is also available for RSV and the flu, however, these tests are typically administered at your local clinic.
Make note of your symptoms and how quickly they occur. Some people suffering from the flu describe feeling like they’ve been hit by a truck given how fast the symptoms happen whereas RSV and COVID symptoms tend to creep in more slowly. If you test negative for COVID at home and want to know for sure if you have – or rule out – RSV or the flu, head to your local clinic for a swab or white blood cell count check.
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There are key safety measures you can take during cold and flu season to help prevent the spread of diseases.
- Wash your hands. This age-old practice is an elemental safeguard as seasonal viruses set in. Make sure to wash your hands frequently, and especially after contact with others. Not sure how long to wash? Sing your ABCs while vigorously scrubbing hands (tops, bottoms, between fingers, and beneath fingernails). Rinse once you reach Z. If you can’t get to some soap and a sink, make sure to stash a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your purse, pocket or go bag.
- Make sure to get seasonal vaccines and boosters. Flu shots are available annually, and are developed to best combat that season’s particular strain of the flu. Visit your local health clinic, pharmacy or primary care provider to get your poke. Similarly, COVID-19 booster shots are also available. Talk with your healthcare provider about getting the booster, and when to do so as new variants are still surfacing throughout the year. Finally, a new RSV vaccine is now available. The Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine, recommending it for those 60 years and older.
- Ensure proper indoor ventilation and distancing. As the weather gets cooler and days become shorter, we tend to head inside. Without proper indoor ventilation and airflow, these illnesses can proliferate. Make sure to open a window or turn on a ceiling fan or air filter to help limit stagnant air where germs have an easier time making their way into our bodies. When you are indoors and when possible, try to stand a few feet away from others. Many illnesses spread when people are in close proximity.
- Educate family members. It’s especially important for parents to talk to children about ways they can help keep themselves and others healthy during cold and flu season. Encourage kids to do a vampire or chicken wing sneeze into the crook of their elbow instead of their hands. Teach proper hand washing technique. And of course, keep sick kids home from school to help prevent spread.
When to Seek Medical Help
RSV, COVID and the flu typically resolve themselves with rest and over-the-counter remedies in a week to 10 days. However, if you’re experiencing certain red flags, it’s important to seek medical help as soon as possible. Those red flags include:
- Severe breathing difficulty
- Persistent high fever (a high fever is usually marked by a body temperature of 103℉ or 39.4℃)
- Altered mental state
- Severe dehydration
Managing Winter Bugs at Home
While there is no magic remedy for winter bugs, there are ways to lessen symptoms and aid recovery. Two of the best things you can do for your body include rest and hydration. Not feeling well is a great excuse to curl up under the covers and drink plenty of clear liquids. Some over-the-counter medications can help lessen the severity of symptoms. Talk with your pharmacist or healthcare provider about the best options for you. Monitor your health and symptoms to make sure you begin to improve after a couple of days. If symptoms persist and you don’t feel yourself getting better, it might be time to visit the clinic or call your doctor.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of seasonal illnesses can help save lives, especially in vulnerable people. This cold and flu season, stay vigilant and responsible, taking precautions and making decisions that will help you stay healthy through the winter.