RSV, Flu & COVID: What you need to know

December 8, 2022 Providence Oregon News Team

sick woman with thermometer


In this article: 

  • Multiple types of respiratory viruses are surging in our communities. Here’s what’s happening and what families can do to stay safer. 
  • Learn to identify the differences between RSV, influenza, and COVID-19, and when to treat at home or get medical help. 
  • Practice prevention measures and reduce your risk for a potential “tri-demic” by getting vaccinated against the flu and receiving an updated COVID-19 booster.  

RSV, Flu & COVID. What you need to know 

Many locations in the United States are experiencing a sharp rise in the number of cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as well as pediatric flu. As a result of the surge in these viruses, our emergency rooms, clinics and urgent care centers are seeing unprecedented patient volumes. Public health agencies are reporting a surge in RSV infections and early increases in influenza activity and anticipated increases in COVID-19 this season.  

We want to help you and your family stay well and, whenever possible, out of the hospital and emergency department. At the same time, we want to make sure that you get the care you need when you need it. 

What is RSV?  

  • RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It’s one of the many respiratory viruses that causes what we know as cold symptoms in adults and children.  
  • Symptoms can include runny nose, cough, sneezing and fever.  
  • RSV may also cause more significant respiratory symptoms, difficulty breathing and dehydration due to difficulty eating and/or drinking in younger children.  

What is the current concern regarding RSV and influenza?  

  • RSV circulates annually, but this year we are seeing a surge in emergency department visits and high numbers of hospitalizations among children.  
  • We are also concerned about a large influx of patients with other respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19 and influenza.  
  • Hospitals who care for pediatric patients in our region are already at or over capacity on a regular basis; wait times are long in emergency departments and inpatient units are full. 

Who is at highest risk?  

  • Infants and young children under the age of 2, though we are seeing some older children this year requiring hospitalization for RSV.  
  • Infants and children with heart or lung disease or a history of asthma, allergies or eczema.  
  • Anyone with a very compromised immune system or chronic disease.  

How do I know if my child or other family member has RSV, the flu or COVID? 

  • For older children, RSV looks and feels like a typical cold, with a runny nose, cough, sneezing, congestion, and sometimes, a fever.   
  • Infants and toddlers are more likely to have RSV symptoms affecting their lungs, such as wheezing, fast breathing, or respiratory distress. This type of infection is called bronchiolitis and can sometimes require oxygen support or other medical care.  
  • Flu frequently causes fever, fatigue, coughing, aches and congestion. 
  • Loss of taste or smell is more specifically associated with COVID.  
  • It’s not always possible to tell which virus is causing symptoms without a test, however most people with cold symptoms do not need to be tested for RSV. There is no specific treatment, and no need to visit a doctor, urgent care or emergency department to get tested for RSV if you are having mild to moderate cold symptoms. 

How do I treat RSV? 

  • Most RSV treatment is supportive care, which means helping your loved one feel better through their illness.  
  • At-home treatment includes gentle suctioning of the nose to make breathing and feeding easier for infants, a cool mist humidifier, medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen to treat fever, and making sure to keep hydrated — especially in babies and children. Babies over the age of 1 year can have honey added to warm fluids to help soothe a sore throat. Over-the-counter cold medications are typically not helpful for children under the age of 5 and can have dangerous side effects, so are best avoided. 
  • Prevention is critical! Handwashing, mask wearing, staying home from work, school or day care when sick and avoiding anyone who has respiratory symptoms are vital in preventing the spread of RSV, influenza and COVID-19.  

When should I contact my doctor or seek emergency care for my child?  

  • If your child is having difficulty breathing, including fast or short breaths, grunting noises, unusual movements of the chest or ribs, or wheezing.  
  • If your child is unable to eat or drink normally. 
  • If your child is showing signs of being less responsive than usual or has a significant change in their level of activity.  
  • If your baby is younger than 2 months of age and has a fever of 100.4 F or higher.  
  • Call 911 if your child has grey or blue color of the mouth, lips or tongue, is having severe difficulty breathing, or you have other emergent concerns. 

The best thing parents and caregivers can do to stay healthy and safe is to practice all the measures that were emphasized during the pandemic: avoid contact with those who are sick, wash hands frequently, clean and disinfect surfaces and stay up to date on all routine vaccinations, including flu shots and COVID-19 boosters. It’s also helpful to limit exposure to frequent visitors and crowds, especially if you have a child at risk for severe illness and/or younger than 12 weeks of age. 

If you have questions about RSV or need care, contact your primary care provider. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services.  

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