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RSV symptoms: How to know if your child has RSV, COVID-19, the flu or a cold

RSC is surging across the U.S., but kids are at risk for all 4 of these viruses this winter

SHARE RSV symptoms: How to know if your child has RSV, COVID-19, the flu or a cold
An illustration of COVID-19.

With sick season upon us, keep an eye out for these four illnesses.

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

This winter, children will be susceptible to COVID-19, the flu, RSV and colds. Many of the symptoms for all four viruses overlap, which makes it difficult to determine which illness your child is suffering from.

Flu cases are already spiking around the nation. But the flu is not the only illness seeing a surge as we head into winter.

“We’re seeing everything come back with a vengeance,” said Dr. Alpana Waghmare, an infectious diseases expert at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and a physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, per The New York Times.

We could enter what The New York Times is calling a “tripledemic.” Cases are likely to be mild, but kids and the immunocompromised are most at risk.

“Navigating childhood illnesses can be challenging for parents,” says pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Frank Esper, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Although COVID-19, the flu, RSV and colds share many of the same symptoms, there are differences to look for.

What are RSV symptoms?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV for short, is a virus that typically has mild, cold-like symptoms. In young children, RSV can get serious. It is the most common cause of bronchitis and pneumonia in children under one in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

The CDC reports that RSV symptoms typically appear gradually — typically four to five days after exposure. RSV symptoms typically include: cough, fever, runny nose, decreased appetite, sneezing and wheezing.

In infants, the symptoms could be milder. Most infants will experience lethargy, irritability, decreased activity and decreased appetite. Almost all children will contract RSV by the thier second birthday, reports the CDC.

There is no vaccine available for RSV.

What RSV symptoms stand out? Wheezing, which could sound like a whistle or rattle. Bronchitis and pneumonia are common secondary infections of RSV, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

When to go to the doctor: Most symptoms should go away within a week or so. If your child is not drinking enough, having difficulty breathing or if symptoms worsen, contact your child’s doctor.

What are flu symptoms?

Flu symptoms can range from mild to severe. Flu symptoms typically come suddenly, not gradually, per the CDC.

According to the CDC, typical flu symptoms include: fever and chills, body or muscle aches, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue and headaches.

Children under 5 are at higher risk of complications from the flu. The Cleveland Clinic reports that some of these complications are: dehydration, pneumonia, sinus infection, ear infection and inflammation of heart, brain or muscle tissue.

What flu symptoms stand out? High fever, nausea and vomiting. It is very difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu based solely on symptoms, reports the CDC. Testing is available to determine if an illness is the flu or COVID-19.

When to go to the doctor: The CDC says to take your child to the doctor if they have trouble breathing, chest pain, bluish lips or face, severe muscle pain, fever above 104, dehydration, seizures or worsening symptoms.

What are COVID-19 symptoms?

The CDC reports that the usually COVID-19 symptoms are: cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, fever or chills, headache, body or muscle aches, diarrhea, sore throat, loss of taste or smell.

COVID-19 symptoms are generally milder in children and infants, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.

What COVID-19 symptoms stand out? Loss of taste or smell is unique to COVID-19. Again, it is very difficult to tell the difference between flu and COVID-19 based on symptoms alone.

When to go to the doctor: Seek medical help if your child is having difficulty breathing or catching their breath, unable to keep liquids down, confusion, unable to stay awake or bluish lips, reports Johns Hopkins Medicine.

What are cold symptoms?

According to the CDC, common cold symptoms are: sneezing, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, coughing or watery eyes. Adults typically get an average of two to three colds every year, and children get more.

What cold symptoms stand out? Cold symptoms are usually gradual. Fevers are rare with colds and symptoms are typically milder overall.

When to go to the doctor: Take your child to the doctor if symptoms do not improve after 10 days, fever or cough worsens, or they experience dehydration or trouble breathing, per the CDC.

How do I know the difference?

These lists are not all inclusive of every symptom associated with these illnesses. These are just the most common symptoms.

It can be difficult to determine which illness your child is suffering from based on symptoms because all four illnesses have similarities. If your child has severe or worsening symptoms with any of these viruses, seek medical attention, per the Cleveland Clinic.