Is it the flu, COVID, or RSV?

October 26, 2021
Kids health
5 min read


Kristie L. Kaufman, MD


With the arrival of fall and winter on the horizon, parents know all too well the sniffles and sneezes, coughs and fevers that kids come down with this time of year. Although commonly known as flu season, these cooler months also bring increases in other respiratory tract infections as we all begin spending more time indoors. And this year, COVID-19 is again part of the mix.

When your child starts to show symptoms of a respiratory illness, it can be confusing to figure out whether it’s just the common cold or something more serious. With increasing cases of COVID-19 among children, understanding the difference among common respiratory infections and your treatment options is important.

What is the difference between the flu, COVID-19, and RSV?

The flu, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are all highly contagious viral respiratory infections. These respiratory illnesses affect both children and adults, and it is possible to be infected with multiple viruses at the same time.

What causes the flu?

The flu is caused by the influenza virus and spreads easily during the winter months when people spend time together indoors. There are many strains of influenza virus, and the virus can change from year to year, which is why anyone eligible—that is, everyone six months of age and older—should get a flu vaccine each year.

What causes COVID-19?

COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus, and with the emergence of the delta variant, cases of COVID-19 among children are rising.

What causes RSV?

RSV is a viral illness that causes symptoms such as trouble breathing. It’s the most common cause of mucous plugging of the small airways in the lungs and pneumonia in babies. RSV is spread when a child comes into contact with fluid from an infected person’s nose or mouth.

What are the symptoms of the flu, COVID-19, and RSV?

This is where it can get tricky. Both the flu and COVID can cause symptoms including runny nose, sore throat, fever, chills, headache, cough, muscle soreness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Since the symptoms are so similar, the best way to determine whether your child has COVID-19 or the flu is to get them tested.

RSV symptoms are like those of the common cold. In children, symptoms start about two to five days after contact with the virus, and the early phase of RSV in babies and young children is often mild. In children younger than age three, the illness may move into the lungs and cause coughing and wheezing. In some children, the infection turns to a severe respiratory disease.

If your child shows signs of illness beyond mild symptoms, see your pediatrician, who may do a nasal swab test to determine if your child has RSV. Because most children recover without difficulty and because there is no treatment for RSV, these tests usually are not necessary.

How do I prevent the flu, COVID-19, and RSV?

One of the best ways to protect yourself and your children from the flu and COVID-19 is to get vaccinated against these viruses, and have your children vaccinated if they’re eligible.

Engaging in proper hygiene practices with your child can also reduce the risk of infections.
Avoid putting your baby in contact with anyone who exhibits symptoms of any respiratory illness, wash your hands regularly, and don’t let anyone smoke around your baby. Continuing to practice the measures we’ve all learned during the pandemic, including physical distancing and wearing masks in certain situations, can also help prevent your child from contracting a respiratory illness.


This article originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times.

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