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Navigating Respiratory Challenges:
Understanding COVID-19, Flu, and RSV

Keep your family healthy this flu season.

What is the flu?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness. It’s caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can lead to problems like ear infections or bacterial pneumonia. Sometimes it can lead to a hospital stay or even death. It can also make chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, cancer, and others worse. Click here to learn more.

Flu symptoms include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Fever (not everyone with the flu gets a fever)
  • Some people also have vomiting and diarrhea. This is more common in children than adults.

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV is also a contagious respiratory virus. It usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but it can sometimes be serious. Most people who get RSV will feel better in a week or two.

RSV is very common. Most children will get RSV by their second birthday.

RSV symptoms usually show up within four to six days of getting infected. RSV symptoms usually are:

  • Runny nose
  • Lower appetite than usual
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

Symptoms don’t usually appear all at once. Very young children with RSV may only have symptoms of:

  • Irritability
  • Lower activity than usual
  • Breathing problems

Call your doctor if you or your child:

  • Have trouble breathing.
  • Cannot drink enough fluids.
  • Have symptoms that are getting worse.

Most RSV infections will go away on their own in a week or two. But some people are more likely to get very sick from RSV. This includes adults age 60 and older, pregnant people, and young children.

How can I protect myself and others from flu, a cold, COVID-19, or RSV?

Flu season begins in October and can last through May. You can get a cold any time of the year, but people are most likely to get colds from August to April. You can get COVID-19 any time of the year. RSV season begins in October and can last through April.

There are easy ways to protect yourself and others from these respiratory illnesses:

  • Wash your hands often. Use soap and water, and wash for at least 20 seconds.
  • Cover your mouth with your elbow, a tissue, or a shirtsleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze.
  • Stay home if you feel sick.
  • Try to avoid direct contact with viruses. You can do this by avoiding kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups or eating utensils.
  • Clean surfaces that are touched often, like doorknobs, cellphones, and light switches.

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot every year. Flu shots help reduce flu-related illnesses and the risk of serious complications. It can also help reduce the severity of the flu even if you do get it. Talk to your doctor about getting your flu shot. If you don’t have a doctor and need help to find one, call us at 866-833-5717. 

The best way to prevent RSV is different for everyone. People over age 60 and pregnant people should talk to their doctor about if they should get the RSV vaccine. Babies in their first year of life may need to get monoclonal antibodies. Talk to your doctor about the best method for you. Click here and here to read more about this.

How do I know if it’s the flu, a cold, COVID-19, or RSV?

All four are contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Because some of the symptoms are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone. You may need a test to confirm a diagnosis.

Some symptoms that the flu, COVID-19, and RSV all have are:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose

Click here to learn more.

It it a cold, flu, or COVID-19?

Symptom onset Gradual Quick

One to four days after exposure


About five days after exposure


Four to six days after infection

Fever Rare Usual Common Common
Aches Slight Usual Common Rare
Chills Uncommon Fairly common Common Rare
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Usual Common Rare
Sneezing Common Sometimes Sometimes Common
Chest discomfort, cough Mild to moderate Common Common Common
Stuffy nose Common Sometimes Common Never
Sore throat Common Sometimes Common Never
Headache Rare Common Common Never
Vomiting/diarrhea Rare Common in children Common in children Never
Loss of taste or smell Never Never Common Never
Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing Sometimes Common Common Common in very young children