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Published on January 01, 2022

woman with flu blowing nose with germ illustrations

Three Viruses, Three Threats: Understanding COVID, Flu and RSV

COVID-19 is stealing most of the headlines, but other respiratory threats are out there:

  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) cases in babies and children usually increase in the winter.
  • Influenza season usually begins in October and continues until spring.

“RSV is really contagious, and hits the little ones really hard,” said Kara Bruning, MD, Clinical Vice President of Avera’s Pediatric Service Line. “The increase in cases came early this year, and we’re also seeing kids with COVID-19.”

Stopping the Spread of Winter Sickness

Last year, both RSV and flu cases were lower than usual. Due to relaxed mitigation measures as the pandemic marches on, some experts predict a difficult flu season this year. Avera saw its first cases of flu around Oct. 5.

The same rules apply this year to stop the spread through good hand-washing, social distance, mask use and by keeping sick kids home when they’re sick are all good ideas, Bruning said.

“Flu season is here, and we need to do everything we can to stop these viruses before they start,” Bruning said. “Everyone should take preventive steps: masks, stay home when sick, wash those hands and get your vaccinations.”

Symptoms of Respiratory Viruses

RSV, flu and COVID all have similar symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Sneezing and congestion
  • Coughing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Headache and muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue

That’s why it’s so important to call your provider to get tested and diagnosed, as treatment will vary.

Warning signs of respiratory viruses include a high fever and trouble breathing. Babies 1 and younger will show breathing trouble by retracting their tummies as they try to gain more oxygen. “If you see that, call your provider,” Bruning said.

Blueish lips or fingertips are other signs of baby breathing issues. It’s possible to get more than one of these illnesses at the same time. Most babies that needed oxygen due to RSV recover after treatment.

Flu Shots and COVID-19 Vaccinations

“Getting vaccinated is the safest way to protect yourself from getting seriously ill as well as spreading a virus to other people, especially those who may be vulnerable due to age or underlying medical conditions,” said Jawad Nazir, MD, Avera Medical Group infectious disease and internal medicine specialist.

While a shot won’t prevent all cases of a viral illness, the valuable protection they offer makes them the gold standard in preventive medicine. There is no vaccine for RSV. 

Flu vaccines for 2021 offer protection against four strains of flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). High-dose vaccines for people 65 and older are recommended, too. 

Treatment for Respiratory Illnesses

Hydration and oxygen therapies are sometimes used for flu and RSV patients who are admitted to hospitals. Preventive approaches – including vaccination – are among the best ways to stop these viruses. If the level of oxygen gets too low, because of a virus or due to the patient developing pneumonia, providers use supplemental oxygen.

“In some cases we have to intubate young children and let the machines help them breathe,” Bruning said. “This temporary step can help them until they recover and their antibodies beat the virus.”

Stopping the spread through good hand-washing, social distance, mask use and by keeping sick kids home when they’re sick are all good ideas, Bruning said. The more adults or vaccine-eligible children 5 and older who get the COVID shot, or their flu shots, the better. COVID boosters are recommended for anyone age 12 and over.

You can learn how you can get your flu or COVID-19 vaccinations. If you are 65 or older or have medical problems that can increase risk of bacterial pneumonia, you should ask your provider about a pneumococcal vaccine.

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