Understanding Winter Illnesses: Is it a cold, the flu or RSV?
I know, many of us are feeling this. The winter season often brings with it a flurry of respiratory viruses, ranging from the common cold to more serious conditions like influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). While these illnesses share some of the same symptoms, understanding the main differences can help parents, and health care professionals, better manage and treat kids with these viruses and infections.
The Flu: The Seasonal Menace
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The flu is known for its sudden onset of symptoms, which can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue and headaches. In severe cases, it can lead to complications such as pneumonia.
What sets the flu apart from other illnesses is its rapid transmission and potential for seasonal outbreaks. The virus can also mutate, which is why we often see different strains each flu season. This constant evolution poses challenges for vaccine development; however, flu vaccinations are recommended each year to provide protection your family against widespread strains.
There is a nasal swab test that can be done in the doctor’s office to test for influenza. If contracted, our bodies need to naturally fight the infection. Since it’s a virus, antibiotics won’t cure the flu. Rest and hydration are the best ways to treat influenza. Over-the-counter pain relievers that are approved by your child’s doctor and humidifiers can help alleviate some symptoms for kiddos.
Common Cold: The Everyday Nuisance
The common cold, caused by various viruses such as rhinoviruses and coronaviruses, shares some symptoms with the flu but is generally milder. Symptoms may include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing, sore throat and mild fatigue. Unlike influenza, the common cold rarely leads to severe complications.
The common cold is highly contagious and can spread through respiratory droplets from infected individuals (i.e. coughing or sneezing) or by touching surfaces that have been contaminated with the virus (i.e. door knobs and door handles). While there is no specific cure for the common cold, rest, hydration, humidifiers and over-the-counter pain medications that are approved by your child’s doctor can alleviate symptoms and promote recovery.
RSV: A Concern for Young Children
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is another contagious virus and also common cause of respiratory infections, particularly in infants (and older adults). RSV can lead to bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia.
RSV is extremely seasonal, often peaking in the fall and winter months. While RSV infections are usually mild in healthy adults, they can be severe in newborns, premature infants and kids with weakened immune systems. The RSV vaccine is recommended for infants under 9 months old who were born in or will be experiencing their first RSV season and babies 9 to 18 months old who are at high risk of severe complications entering into their second RSV season.
Symptoms of RSV include coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing and fever. It’s recommended to closely monitor your child’s symptoms and call your child’s doctor if you notice fast, short or difficulty breathing. Like the flu, a nasal swab test can be done in the doctor’s office to test for RSV. There is no specific medication or treatment for RSV because, just like the cold and flu, RSV is viral. Supportive care and comfort measures suggested for colds and influenza are also recommended to manage RSV symptoms.
COVID: The Newest, Oldest Concern
Many individuals are tired of hearing and talk about COVID. Although COVID-19 has impacted many children, severe complications are rare and most children recover with supportive care. Testing and vaccination are both recommended for COVID-19. The COVID-19 vaccine is a safe, effective and recommended for all children over the age of 6 months. If you have questions about its safety, talk to your child’s doctor.
When your child is sick, it can be tricky to know if it’s COVID-19 or one of the other viruses above because symptoms can be similar. For more guidance and some quick tips, click here for a chart that outlines how symptoms differ, what you might see in kids with each condition and recommendations for what to do in each situation. It may come in handy this time of year!
Protecting Your Family
The best way to prevent the spread of these respiratory viruses is to wash your hands often (help young kids and remind older kids to wash their hands often), avoid close contact with others who are sick, stay home when you or your child is not feeling well and get vaccinated against influenza and COVID-19. Young children and the elderly, may benefit from additional preventive measures, such as RSV immunizations.
Always reach out to your child’s doctor with any questions you may have about their health. If you’re looking for a new doctor, we have family medicine resident physicians who are accepting new patients at the Prevea Shawano Avenue Health Center – we’d be happy to help and look forward to caring for you and your children.
Dr. Powers is a family medicine physician at the Prevea Shawano Avenue Health Center. She is one of the faculty physicians training our family medicine residents while also seeing patients of all ages, from newborn on.