COVID-19, the flu and RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) are all contagious viruses that cause respiratory illnesses, and all diseases spread worldwide. Understanding how they differ in symptoms, transmission, prevention, and treatment is beneficial to minimizing the spread and helpful when determining the next steps you should take if you or someone in your family is experiencing symptoms.
COVID-19 and flu can cause a fever, cough, body aches, fatigue, and headache. Symptoms can be mild or severe. Both COVID-19 and flu can result in pneumonia, which is inflammation of the lungs in which air sacs fill with pus and may become solid. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, call your healthcare provider.
See all symptoms of COVID-19 and flu
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common and contagious virus that infects the respiratory tract. It's most common in children under the age of two, but elderly people can also become infected.
Symptoms of RSV include:
"RSV often looks like a cold at the beginning and then usually gets progressively worse," said Beth Ann Orlowski, DO, FAAP, Chief of Pediatrics at Newark Wayne Hospital.
COVID-19, flu and RSV are spread from person to person through droplets in the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks in close proximity.
COVID-19: COVID-19 spreads easily and sustainably in a community, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There is no current evidence to suggest that people can get COVID-19 by eating or handling food, or drinking water. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that the new coronavirus is spread by mosquitoes or ticks.
Flu: People with the flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after symptoms begin. However, healthy adults may sometimes infect others one day before symptoms show and up to five to seven days after becoming ill.
RSV: RSV is often spread by children in daycare or a learning environment where children are in close contact with each other. Adults can also spread it to children, and vice versa.
COVID-19: Anti-viral medications are currently being tested to see if they can reduce or eliminate symptoms of COVID-19. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or have tested positive, speak with your healthcare provider about over-the-counter medications that may be able to reduce the severity of symptoms.
Flu: Flu symptoms can be treated with certain anti-viral medications. During the 2019/2020 flu season, the CDC recommended four FDA-approved anti-viral drugs to treat flu:
Check with your healthcare provider before taking anti-viral medications.
RSV: There are many different ways to treat RSV, and treatments depend on the severity of the infection. Over-the-counter medication can help bring down a fever and fluids can help rehydrate the body. Humidification is often used to thin the mucus and open the airways, oxygen helps with breathing, and saline solution and albuterol (inhaler) have also been successful.
"Little kids don't know how to get rid of the mucus secretions, so our treatments help with that," Dr. Orlowski said.
You can lower your risk of contracting COVID-19, influenza, and RSV by:
*Children under the age of two should not wear a mask. Anyone in close contact with a child under two should wear a mask.
COVID-19: There are four different COVID-19 vaccines available. Children as young as 6 months are eligible to receive the vaccine, which provides strong immune protection and helps to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death in both pediatric and adult patients.
Read more about the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters
Flu: There is an effective vaccine available to help prevent and reduce the severity of many dangerous types of the flu. Receiving the flu shot not only reduces your chances of getting the flu, but it also reduces the severity of the flu if you were to contract the virus.
"It's always important to get the flu shot, but this year it's essential to keep people out of the hospital and healthcare facilities that may be simultaneously dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic," said Emil Lesho, DO, Infection Disease Specialist at Rochester Regional Health.
RSV: There is a vaccine for RSV, but it is often reserved for premature newborn babies and children with compromised immune systems.
Seasonal allergies start to impact people as winter winds down and spring comes into bloom. If you suffer from allergies, it's important to be able to recognize if it is your allergies that have struck and not the new coronavirus or the flu.
“Symptoms of allergies and viral infections can often be difficult to differentiate,” said Syed Mustafa, MD, Allergy Specialist at Rochester Regional Health.
“Some key differences are that viral infections should last days, not weeks or months, like allergies. Symptoms accompanied with a fever would suggest a viral infection, whereas symptoms like sneezing and itchy nose or eyes would suggest allergies.”
If sneezing, coughing, runny nose, and itchy eyes last longer than a week, call your local healthcare provider.
Learn all the differences between coronavirus and seasonal allergies
As people of all ages remain at risk of COVID-19, flu, RSV, and other common infections, it is important to take the following precautions:
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