The United States is facing an upsurge in respiratory viruses, primarily caused by COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
Influenza and RSV emerged earlier than usual and hit children especially hard, filling 78% of pediatric hospital beds, according to the US Department of Health & Personal services.
All three viruses have similar symptoms, which can make them difficult to tell apart. But knowing which virus a person has can help them receive appropriate treatment or, if necessary, let them know if they should self-isolate.
Here are some questions to consider when trying to determine if you have COVID-19, the flu, or RSV.
What are the symptoms?
COVID-19, influenza and RSV are more similar to each other than they are different in terms of symptoms.
One of the only symptoms exclusive to one virus and not others is loss of taste and smell, which has been a hallmark symptom of COVID-19.
However, public health experts told ABC News that the absence of any of the symptoms does not mean that a patient does not have a particular virus and that the only way to be sure is to get test.
“In most cases, if someone has generic symptoms, such as fever, cough, runny nose, there will be no real way to tell which is which without testing,” said Dr Scott Roberts, assistant professor and associate physician. director of infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine, told ABC News.
How quickly did the symptoms appear?
Flu symptoms usually appear fairly quickly while RSV and COVID-19 symptoms appear more gradually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COVID-19 has an incubation period of two to 14 days while RSV has an average incubation of around five days but can last two to eight days.
In comparison, the flu has an incubation period of one to four days.
“So if someone says, ‘I went to the Thanksgiving party yesterday where someone had the flu and the next day I had a fever’, I can already tell you it’s the flu. “, said Roberts. “I know it’s way too fast for it to be COVID.”
How old is the patient?
Public health experts told ABC News that a patient’s age can affect the severity of the disease.
For example, RSV is more severe in infants under six months of age and young children, especially those with weakened immune systems or who have congenital lung or heart conditions.
“Children under six months old, and children maybe a bit older who have underlying health conditions or are premature, end up with shortness of breath and difficulty breathing because their airways are so small. and they don’t have a lot of reserve there to move air through the little air passages when they’re inflamed,” infectious disease physician Dr. Shira Doron told ABC News. and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
However, relatively young, healthy adults are not likely to have a severe case of RSV if infected.
“In children, we tend to see a lot more bronchiolitis-like breathing problems with RSV,” Dr. Allison Bartlett, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medical Center, told ABC News. “Adults, when they get RSV, it’s like a cold. It’s like one of the colds you catch every year.”
Along with COVID-19, age is the number one risk factor for serious illness and death.
As of the end of the week of November 19, Americans aged 65 and older accounted for 92% of all deaths from the virus, according to an ABC News analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What treatments or precautions should I follow?
“Not everyone needs to be tested; our pediatricians’ offices and our hospitals are overwhelmed,” Bartlett said. However, determining what the disease is can help treat the patient and potentially family members or close contacts, she said.
For example, with COVID-19, it’s important to follow CDC guidelines, which include self-isolation for at least five days — or longer if symptoms don’t improve — and wearing a mask around others. .
Additionally, they may be prescribed Paxlovid if they are at risk of serious illness.
With influenza, patients can be given Tamiflu to shorten the course of their illness as long as it is given early and people exposed to influenza can receive the treatment to prevent them from getting sick.
However, the most important thing a person can do if they are infected – if possible – is to stay home.
“If you’re really, really sick, go to the hospital. If you’re not that sick and it feels like a cold, then you stay home and don’t infect people,” Doron said.
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