This fall and 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.

“We’re going to have three bugs out there, three viruses: Covid, of course, flu and RSV,” Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News. “We need to make sure the American people understand all three and what they can do to protect themselves.”

Combating another “tripledemic” year requires an understanding of symptoms so each illness can be properly treated. 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 their second birthday, reports the CDC.

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.

Here’s why some infants won’t be immunized against RSV this year
RSV on the rise: What you need to know about symptoms and precautions

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.

Experts outline expectations for how severe flu season will be

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.

View Comments

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.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.