The short answer is: process of elimination. First, rule out COVID-19 with a home test (with nose+throat swab technique! See link below). If that’s negative, assess your symptoms.
If your first symptoms are drippy nose/sneezing, it’s more likely RSV. If your symptoms start out with a sudden high fever and body aches, it’s more likely flu. Clinicians can test for all three, and both flu and COVID-19 are treatable with antiviral medication (if you qualify). So we also recommend reaching out to your clinician. No matter what you (or your child) has, watch carefully for breathing difficulty and dehydration. These are medical emergencies and should be treated immediately.
We’re mid-stream with this RSV outbreak and flu is close on its heels! If you are not yet vaccinated for flu this year, it’s not too late. It’s shaping up to be a beastly flu season, too.
If it feels like every single small child you know has had RSV lately, that’s because here in the States, we are in the middle of one of the worst RSV outbreaks in recent memory.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (aka RSV) is just one of the many viruses that cause “the common cold.” There’s no vaccine for this one, and it can be serious, especially for infants and older people. Many adults and older kids experience an annoying drippy nose/sneezing followed by fever and fatigue which clears up in a few days.
In babies, the only symptoms may be irritability and low energy. Especially with these young ones, watch carefully for rapid or difficult breathing and dehydration. These are medical emergencies and should be treated immediately.
RSV can also sometimes lead to inflammation in the lungs which makes it hard to breathe (bronchiolitis) and lung infections (pneumonia). This is more common in young children and older adults.
If you want to know how to tell whether you have RSV, COVID-19, the flu, or something else, there’s no perfect way to figure it out. Step one should be to take a home antigen test to rule out COVID-19. Use a throat+nose swab technique. This is not an FDA-approved approach, but we’re convinced that it is more likely to return a positive result if you do have COVID-19. Be careful not to injure your throat. See this link for how (start at 2:13).
Once you’ve ruled out COVID-19, take a look at your *first* symptoms. If your earliest symptoms are drippy nose/sneezing, it’s more likely RSV. If your symptoms start out with a sudden high fever and body aches, it’s more likely flu. Flu is treatable, if you identify it early. So if you suspect flu, call your clinician even if you don’t think your case is severe. COVID-19 is also treatable, if you qualify.
There is no treatment for RSV. You should still stay in touch with your clinician and monitor your symptoms (and your child’s symptoms) carefully. Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Stay home if you can and use a mask and good hand washing if you can’t.
How bad is this outbreak? Well, compared to the last typical season (2018-2019), the rate of kids hospitalized with RSV in the same week of October was 11 times higher this year. Although the surveillance data shows a slight downward trend last week, we may not be done with this outbreak. The data from last week are not final yet, and more cases will likely be added.
Why this huge outbreak? We’re likely seeing a *lot* of catch-up RSV all at once. This is an extremely common virus that circulates every year in a seasonal rhythm. We had much less RSV than usual for the past two seasons due to pandemic prevention measures that also happened to prevent RSV. There are a lot of new kids in the world who have never had it before, and a lot of older kids who missed a season or two. So, this huge outbreak is all catch-up from the disruptions of the pandemic.