COVID, RSV or flu? How to distinguish symptoms

COVID, RSV or flu? How to distinguish symptoms

(NEXSTAR) – Three respiratory illnesses, COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu, continue to infect hundreds of thousands of Americans daily – which can make it hard to tell what’s wrong when you feel a cough coming on.

All three viruses cause disease with overlapping symptoms. A chart created by Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC compares the most common differences at a glance.

While cough and fever are common to all three viruses, there are other ways in which the viruses differ. Sneezing is common with RSV, sometimes happens with COVID-19 and rarely with the flu, according to the hospital’s symptom chart. On the other hand, headaches and body aches are rare with RSV, sometimes occur with COVID-19, and are common with the flu.

Another thing to watch for is “the onset of symptoms,” says Children’s National. Although both COVID-19 and RSV start gradually and then escalate, the flu usually hits hard and fast.

With RSV, symptoms often go away in about a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms last longer with the flu, about one to two weeks, and can last longer with COVID-19.

A chart created by Children’s National Hospital compares symptoms associated with COVID-19, the flu, and RSV. (Photo: Children’s National)

The severity of symptoms in all three cases varies from person to person.

Another key difference: There are vaccines for flu and COVID-19, but no vaccine for RSV—although researchers are working on one.

While examining your symptoms is a good place to start, doctors recommend testing to help you take the next steps.

“For both flu and COVID, we have antiviral drugs that work if taken early after symptoms appear,” said Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “So that’s good to know, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. … Those are important tools that we really have to continue to use.”

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