COVID, Flu Or RSV: How To Tell What You're Sick With This Winter

The combination of COVID, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — what has become known as this year's 'tripledemic' — is breaking havoc in hospitals and health centers around the country. As of January 2023, 77% of inpatient beds are being used, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

RSV has been around for a long time and actually causes about 14,000 deaths in seniors every year (per the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases). Preliminary estimates for the 2021-2022 season include 5,000 deaths related to the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This is a significant drop from previous years, before COVID (the 2019-2020 season saw 25,000 deaths).

With infections surging in all three respiratory illnesses, it's more important than ever to protect yourself. But if you're feeling sick, how do you know which virus you caught so you can reach for the proper treatment? Luckily, symptoms vary enough among these three respiratory illnesses that you should be able to get a good idea of what's ailing you.

One important thing to keep in mind: It's possible to catch more than one virus at the same time, and co-infections are actually common in children (via Cleveland Clinic). If you see a mix of symptoms and cannot identify what's going on, a visit to your doctor is a good idea. 

Understanding the differences and similarities

One of the easiest ways to tell what you or your child have (or don't have) is to look at very specific symptoms. For example, COVID-19 is the only one of the three infections that causes a sudden loss of smell and taste, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Experts at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital point out that not everybody who contracts COVID experiences this. In fact, only about 40% of patients lose their sense of smell and up to 55% lose their sense of taste. Still, a loss of these senses would likely confirm COVID.

RSV also has a unique symptom — it's the only one of the three infections that causes wheezing, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The flu, on the other hand, is the one more likely of the three infections to cause a very high fever (as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Some serious symptoms are shared by two of the infections. For example, both COVID and the flu cause very bad headaches, a sore throat, and loss of appetite, but RSV usually doesn't, the American Academy of Pediatrics explains. And while COVID has been known to cause vomiting or diarrhea, RSV and the flu are less likely to present this symptom. 

All three respiratory illnesses share some symptoms, including fatigue and shortness of breath, so it can be hard to tell them apart based on this.