As more people head back to work in person and with many of them not wearing masks, COVID-19 isn’t the only illness spreading. Cases of respiratory syncytial virus, aka RSV, have spread rapidly this summer, especially in southern states. Now, people who might be sick have to determine the RSV symptoms vs. those of COVID to determine which illness they might have.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory warning of a surge in RSV infections across states such as Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas. Hospitals in the Midwest are also reporting an increase in RSV cases.
Due to the increased cases, the CDC is encouraging broader testing for RSV among patients who have respiratory illnesses but who test negative for COVID-19.
So far, COVID appears to be more dangerous for adults, especially older ones. RSV is riskier for young children, but it can also be serious for older people and those who have pre-existing health conditions, such as a weakened immune system.
As both illnesses involve respiratory symptoms, it can be hard for a nonprofessional to distinguish between COVID vs RSV, but RSV is much more common historically.
Although many people have never heard of RSV, the vast majority will contract the virus by the age of 3, Carolina López, a virologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Everyday Health.
RSV is primarily spread via respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes or through direct contact with a contaminated surface. It is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children less than a year old in the U.S. Infants, young children, and older adults with chronic medical conditions are at risk of severe disease from RSV infection.
Because RSV (and the common cold, for that matter) wasn’t circulated as much during the winter months of 2020-2021, older infants and toddlers may now be at increased risk of severe RSV illness since they most likely haven’t been exposed to it during the pandemic.
In infants younger than six months, RSV symptoms may include irritability, poor feeding, lethargy, and apnea with or without fever. In older infants and young children, rhinorrhea (a runny nose) and decreased appetite may appear up to three days before a cough—which is usually followed by sneezing, fever, and sometimes wheezing.
RSV symptoms in adults are generally consistent with upper respiratory tract infections, including rhinorrhea, pharyngitis (a sore throat), cough, headache, fatigue, and fever.
However, there is no specific treatment for RSV infection—only symptom management.
According to the CDC, RSV leads to about 58,000 hospitalizations and 100-500 deaths among children under 5 years old each year in the U.S. It annually causes about 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths among adults 65 years or older.