Posted: October 2023
(4 Minute Read)
It's called "cold and flu season" for a reason, as many people come down with some sort of sickness during the cold and dry winter months. But, in addition to the flu and the common cold, it's also important to look for signs and symptoms of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Treating RSV is different from treating the cold or flu, and there are also different indicators of all these conditions.
To ensure an accurate diagnosis, make sure to get tested. That way, you can take appropriate measures to seek timely medical attention and ensure better management of your and your family's health.
RSV is a common respiratory infection affecting the lungs and airways. It is a virus that typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms and is highly contagious and spreads from person to person through coughing, sneezing, kissing or touching a surface that has the virus on it (such as a doorknob or phone) and then touching your face. Most people recover after about a week or two, but RSV can become serious, particularly among infants and older adults who are more likely to require hospitalization from a serious infection.
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia suggests trusting your instincts about when to seek medical attention. They add that, if you're unsure, call your pediatrician if you see signs of more severe symptoms, like rapid breathing, labored breathing or pale/blue lips.
RSV is prevalent in babies and young children, but it can also affect older adults. The elderly and individuals with a chronic medical condition or weakened immune system are most susceptible to severe bouts of RSV.
Vaccines are available to protect adults over 60 from severe RSV, and monoclonal antibody products are available to protect babies and young children.* Schedule an appointment today.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people infected with RSV usually show symptoms within four to six days after exposure. Typical symptoms include:
The CDC notes that these symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. For instance, a child afflicted with RSV may start off with a runny nose and a cough but will later develop a fever and loss of appetite. In very young babies with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties. Nearly all children will have had an RSV infection before their second birthday.
Severe cases of RSV can lead to more serious infections like pneumonia (a lung infection) and bronchiolitis (an inflammation of the small airways in the lung). RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under one.
Though most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two, RSV can cause severe illness in some people. Antiviral medication is not routinely recommended to fight RSV, but we have a list of treatments for RSV symptoms at the end of this article.
Influenza, better known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. There are actually two main types of flu viruses: types A and B, both of which are routinely spread from person to person. These are the viruses responsible for seasonal flu epidemics every year.
According to the CDC, the flu spreads from person to person, mainly from coughing, sneezing and talking. The virus spreads through droplets between people who are standing closeby each other (usually less than 6 feet apart), but it can also be spread if someone touches an object with the virus on it and then touches their mouth, nose or eyes.
Some high-risk populations, like seniors over 65, young children and people with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease, are at higher risk of serious flu complications. Seek medical attention if your condition doesn't improve after two weeks, if your symptoms improve but then worsen, if you have difficulty breathing or if pain is concentrated in a single area like your ear, nose or chest.
Per the CDC, the best way to reduce the risk of flu and its potentially serious complications is by getting vaccinated each year, ideally in September or October, before flu season hits.* Schedule your flu shot today.
Most people show flu symptoms within one to four days after exposure. While not everyone infected with influenza will develop all of these symptoms, common symptoms include:
Though most people recover from the flu after a week or two, some people may develop moderate complications like ear or sinus infections. More serious complications are also possible, such as pneumonia (which can become life-threatening) and inflammation of the heart, brain and muscle tissue. The flu can also make an existing chronic illness (like asthma or a heart condition) worse.
If treatment begins within a day or two of the onset of flu symptoms, prescribed antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the length of sickness by one or two days.
The CDC says that starting antiviral drugs early may also prevent serious illness and some flu complications like pneumonia. They note that taking antiviral drugs early could even make the difference between having a milder illness versus a more serious one that could result in a hospital stay. Additional symptom treatments can be found below.
The common cold is an illness that affects your nose and throat. According to the Mayo Clinic, the common cold is usually harmless, but it might not feel that way. The cold is caused by viruses, but not the same viruses that cause RSV or the flu. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the cold virus is spread by airborne droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by the sick person and then inhaled by others. Like the flu, colds can also be spread by touching something (like a doorknob or phone) that a sick person touched. They add that, contrary to popular belief, cold weather doesn't cause a cold.
Some adults may have two or three colds annually while other adults may not catch a cold even once. Babies and young children tend to get colds more frequently than adults — two potential sources are daycares and school classrooms, where kids often unknowingly pass colds around to each other.
The Mayo Clinic notes that most people recover from a common cold in seven to 10 days, but symptoms may last longer in people who smoke. Though they say medical care is typically not required for adults with the common cold, they advise seeking out your health provider if symptoms don't get better, if they worsen, or if you have a fever above 101.3°F for more than three days.
Cold symptoms typically start one to three days after someone is exposed to a cold virus. Symptoms vary, but they usually include:
Note that while there is some overlap with the symptoms of the flu (headache, fever, body aches, etc.), the common cold is typically less severe, so its symptoms are often a milder form of what you may experience with the flu.
There is no cure for a cold, it will usually get better on its own. It is important to remember that a cold is a viral infection, so antibiotics won't help. Antibiotics do not treat viruses, they treat bacterial infections. Taking an antibiotic for a cold is unnecessary and their side effects could potentially cause harm, like rash and allergic reaction.
Although there is no cure for the common cold, there are several ways to treat its symptoms.
In addition to the above treatment tips that are specific to the flu, cold and RSV infections, here is a quick list of treatment tips that apply regardless of what illness you may have:
Always speak with your healthcare provider before giving your child non-prescription cold medicines, given that some contain ingredients that aren't suitable for children. Further, many cold and cough medicines contain the same active ingredients, so make sure to follow the instructions carefully so you do not double up on any ingredients.
Ultimately, the best way to handle any illness is to do your best to not get sick in the first place. While there is no single thing you can do to 100% guarantee that nobody in your family will come down with the flu, cold or RSV virus, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk.
By understanding the signs and symptoms of RSV and differentiating them from the flu and common cold, you can better recognize potential respiratory infections and treat them accordingly. And the sooner you can treat them, the sooner you and your family can start to feel better.
Written by: Cassandra Brooklyn
*Some vaccinations may be contraindicated in certain individuals. Your pharmacist or healthcare professional will help determine your vaccination eligibility.
These articles are intended for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in these articles. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise or medication regimen.