How To Know Whether Your Kids Have RSV, The Flu, Or COVID-19

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools opted out of in-person learning, businesses switched to remote work when possible, and people were generally avoiding others as much as possible. Many were also wearing masks when they were around others. 

All of that combined meant dramatically lower flu rates. Between September 2020 and January 2021, the CDC recorded 1,316 flu cases; the year before, it recorded almost 130,000, per the Harvard School of Public Health

But, now that things are returning to a semblance of normal, with people heading back to work and schools having in-person classes, flu rates are higher than expected at this time of year, as are rates of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), particularly in children, via The New York Times. The early spike in RSV has some pediatric hospitals at or near capacity, per NPR. And COVID-19 is still here.

There's nothing quite so stressful as being a parent with a sick kid, and any cough or sniffle could cause concern. And, with respiratory illnesses surging across the country, it's stressful to not know what your kid might have. Here are some ways to recognize the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, and RSV. Of course, always consult a pediatrician to know for sure.

All three diseases can have similar symptoms

Early on, all three viruses — RSV, the flu, and COVID-19 — can start with symptoms in the upper respiratory system, like congestion, cough, and runny nose. They may also be accompanied by fatigue, headache, muscle aches, and fever, per NBC News

One of the unique signifiers of COVID is a loss of taste or smell, though not for everyone, via Children's Hospital Colorado. Flu symptoms may come on more quickly and at the same time, as compared to the symptoms of RSV, which tend to happen in stages, according to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

RSV, if it progresses into the lower respiratory tract, can lead to wheezing, and it's one of the most common causes of pneumonia and bronchiolitis in children under the age of 1, per the CDC. If it gets to the point where your baby has bluish fingernails, rapid breathing, or unusual fatigue, go to the ER, or call 911.

Not everyone will present with the same symptoms, even with the same virus. A test by a doctor will determine for sure what you're dealing with. It's also possible to have more than one virus at the same time, according to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

One of the best ways to keep kids healthy is through vaccines. It's possible for kids to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu, but RSV doesn't currently have a vaccine, per the CDC.