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MyMichigan Health chief medical officer explains the distinctions between three common viruses

While it may not be officially winter, cold and flu season is certainly upon us here in Michigan. Chances are, especially if you have young children in daycare or school, at least one virus or common cold has made its way through your household in the last few months.

With many viruses circulating this year, including RSV, influenza and COVID-19, you may be wondering how you can tell them apart, and when you should see a doctor if you suspect you have one of these viruses.

Q. Is there a way to tell RSV, the flu and COVID-19 apart?
A. These three viruses are especially prevalent this year, with RSV being especially widespread among young children. All three of these viruses affect the respiratory system and share similar symptoms, including a cough, runny nose and fever, but there are some distinctions between them.

Common symptoms of the flu include a high fever (103 or 104 degrees), cough, sore throat, nausea, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea. RSV tends to produce a lot of upper respiratory secretions (mucus) and may be associated with wheezing that sounds like a whistle or a rattle when a person breathes. COVID-19 can produce symptoms similar to a cold or the flu, and may also result in a loss of your taste and/or smell. 

Q. If I have symptoms, should I be tested for all three of these viruses?

A. If you are not at high risk of serious illness, and you have mild symptoms, it’s most likely okay for you to stay home and treat your symptoms as needed with over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen or Tylenol. You can return to work or school after your symptoms have subsided.

If you are experiencing severe symptoms, or you’re at higher risk for complication or illness, call your primary care provider to be seen. They can determine which, if any, testing is appropriate for you. If you, or your child, are having trouble breathing, are wheezing or other severe symptoms, you should seek emergency care right away.    

Q. Who is most at risk for serious illness?

A. With RSV especially, infants younger than six months and older adults are at highest risk of serious illness. For COVID and the flu, those at highest risk are the unvaccinated, older individuals and those with comorbidities, including diabetes, obesity or underlying heart or lung disease.

Q. Is there anything I can do to avoid getting sick?

A. Most importantly, stay home when you’re sick to avoid spreading illness to others. Staying up to date on vaccines, including your yearly flu shot and COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, is also a key step in helping to prevent serious illness this winter season. Washing your hands regularly, cleaning high-contact surfaces like doorknobs often and practicing overall good hand hygiene is also helpful and will help to mitigate the spread of seasonal viruses.  

Paul Berg, M.D., is the chief medical officer at MyMichigan Health.


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