Do you have the flu, a cold or COVID? Here’s how to spot the differences.

Do you have the flu, a cold or COVID?  Here’s how to spot the differences.

The season of colds and chills is underway.

As temperatures drop into the 30s and 40s and tissue boxes become common household items again, doctors and health experts are concerned that many Washingtonians have forgotten that our immune systems may not be prepared.

“Although we have seen a lighter flu season in the last two years due to all the mask wearing and distancing related to COVID, we anticipate this to be a particularly bad year based on predictions from Australia and the southern hemisphere. said Dr. Elizabeth Meade, pediatric hospitalist and medical director of education, outreach and quality at Providence Swedish.

State COVID trends were still relatively low at the end of October, although cases of RSV, a virus that can cause cold-like symptoms, have been shooting for weeks, filling pediatric hospitals. Because RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, infections are arriving in the region months earlier than usual, they are starting to overlap with the start of the flu season.

The rate of flu infections in the state has also began to increase in the last weeks. At least three Washingtonians have died from the flu since early October.

In king countyabout 5.4% of lab tests are returning positive for influenza, compared to about 0.7% in mid-October.

This week, Meade answered our top questions about these respiratory infections and how to stay safe.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How can I tell the difference between flu, RSV and COVID symptoms?

Unfortunately, many of those symptoms overlap, so it can be very difficult for people to tell what’s what without doing a test. Some things are more specific: If someone has an acute loss of taste or smell, that would be highly suspicious for COVID.

If you have COVID, you may also have many nonspecific symptoms, such as aches, congestion, cough, sore throat. Those are things that tend to overlap with the other viruses.

The flu is one of those COVID-like illnesses where people tend to feel like they’ve been hit by a truck: they feel really exhausted, really sore, really sore, and have a high fever. It’s kind of an all-encompassing one here. With the exception of loss of taste or smell, many of the symptoms of the flu will overlap with all of these other illnesses.

RSV is not something that normally comes with a high fever, but it can cause a fever in children. It often tends to cause sneezing and a lot of congestion. In older children and adults, RSV often resembles the common cold. In younger children with underlying health conditions or older people with underlying health conditions, we tend to see more lower respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath, rapid breathing, or use of different muscles (such as retractions between the ribs or dilation of the lower respiratory tract). The nostrils).

In very young children, it can cause inability to feed, severe shortness of breath, and color change (such as turning blue or pale).

There really is no way to tell the difference between RSV and other cold viruses without a test.

If I think I have one of these conditions, when should I seek medical attention?

Much depends on the person. If you are not at high risk of developing serious illness, if you are an older child or adolescent, or a relatively young adult or middle-aged person who has no underlying health problems, unless you are experiencing severe symptoms (difficulty breathing, dehydration, confusion, color change, chest pain), we suggest you try to take care of yourself at home or call or virtually visit your doctor.

For those in high-risk groups, it’s best to call a doctor or health care professional to see if you need to be evaluated. Those most vulnerable to developing severe respiratory symptoms include children under the age of 5 from things like the flu; children under the age of 2 for other things like RSV or COVID; anyone with underlying health conditions, specifically heart or lung disease; people over 65 years of age; or anyone with a weakened immune system (such as those taking immunosuppressive medications, those who have had transplants, or those who are pregnant).

If you have severe symptoms, then you really need to see a provider, either on your own, or go to urgent care or the emergency room.

What is home self-care like if my symptoms are not too severe?

For cold and RSV, make sure you can breathe comfortably and stay hydrated. Suctioning (drawing mucus out of the nose) and the use of fever-control medications are also recommended for most children and adults. (Note: Tylenol and ibuprofen are good options, although babies younger than 6 months should not take ibuprofen.)

Typical over-the-counter cold and cough medications are not recommended for young childrenand parents and caregivers should opt for fluids and fever reducers.

Honey can also be helpful for adults and older children to relieve a sore throat or cough, but honey should not be taken by children under 1 year of age.

For the flu, it’s also supportive care, but there are antiviral drugs that we’ll use on occasion, usually for higher-risk patients (young children, pregnant people, people with underlying health conditions). Tamiflu, for example, is a more useful option if given within the first 48 hours of illness.

What happens if I am infected with several viruses at the same time?

It’s not that the viruses are merging or even interacting with each other, but rather that having more than one illness that can cause similar symptoms at the same time can certainly cause more severe symptoms and put people at more significant risk of severe illness, hospitalization, ICU care and death. What we’re particularly worried about is really nasty viruses like the flu in combination with something like COVID. That could be very dangerous for people of any age or underlying health condition.

This year, as we see this giant increase in RSV and, frankly, many other viruses, we are starting to see positive patients for the flu in Washington State. And we always anticipate that there will be a likely surge of COVID with vacations and travel and all that, so I think this is shaping up to be a potentially very difficult winter when it comes to respiratory illness.

How do I test for these viruses?

COVID tests remain fairly accessible to most Washingtonians, who can pick one up at a pharmacy or drugstore or order free kits at the state home testing program.

There are no home testing options for the flu or most other cold viruses, but most hospitals and clinics have access to both rapid tests and more sensitive tests, which test for several different viruses and take a little longer to test. Throw results.

What are your main recommendations to avoid these viruses?

If you have any respiratory symptoms, stay home from daycare, work, or school. Lots of hand washing. Wear masks when appropriate: at school for some people, at large gatherings, etc. Avoid anyone else who has respiratory symptoms. And stay up to date on routine immunizations, including flu and COVID vaccines.

We know that RSV is highly contagious and we know that children spread it very easily. So this is a time for parents to be extra vigilant about not sending their child to day care or school if he has any cold symptoms. There’s no way for most people to know if that’s RSV or not, and while the other kids around your child may not be at high risk, they may have younger siblings, newborns, or other immunocompromised people in House.

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