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Three Viruses to Watch for in the Winter

During the fall and winter months, there’s an increases in respiratory viruses causing illness across the United States. That’s why it’s important to take steps to protect ourselves and others in the months ahead. Here are three common  viruses that typically increase in the colder months:

1. RSV (respiratory syncytial virus)

RSV is a common infection that causes cold-like symptoms in most people. Cases of RSV typically increase from late fall to early spring. Both adults and children can get infected with RSV, but the virus can be more serious for young children and older adults. RSV can cause bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than one. About 50,000 kids are hospitalized for RSV each year.

"Most of us get RSV many times during our life," says Andrew Pavia, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. "But when you get it the first two to three years of life, it can cause a nasty infection with wheezing, profuse secretions, and difficulty breathing and eating."

RSV is also threatening to older adults. About 177,000 older adults (age 70 and older) are hospitalized for RSV each year. While RSV is a mild cold for most people, it can cause very serious disease for people with weakened immune systems, including pregnant women.

The good news is there is a new vaccine to help protect those most vulnerable to developing severe disease to RSV. Young children, older adults, and pregnant people are encouraged to protect themselves.

2. Flu

Flu or Influenza is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It causes 20,000 to 50,000 deaths each year in the U.S. 

The virus can cause severe illness, hospitalization, and death in people of all ages—but children under age two, adults older than 65, pregnant women, people with conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, and people with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable and more likely to get severely ill.

These groups and everyone older than 6 months, can get vaccinated to better protect themselves. "While the vaccine isn’t perfect, it’s a good tool," Pavia says. "We’ve been recommending the flu vaccine to all children for almost two decades to prevent serious illness and hospitalization."

According to Pavia, you become more vulnerable to flu as you age—your risk of severe flu goes up substantially in your 50s and even more so in your 60s and on. The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu shot every year.

3. COVID-19

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that causes a wide-range of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Cases of COVID-19 have typically increased in the fall and peak in the winter, although this can depend on new emerging variants of the COVID-19 virus.

Everyone can get COVID-19, but older adults, people with certain medical conditions, pregnant women, and young babies are at high risk of developing severe disease. While children aren’t as likely to get severely ill with COVID-19 as adults, some children can still get seriously ill.

The COVID-19 vaccine is available to anyone age six months and older. Similar to the flu vaccine, COVID-19 vaccines don’t necessarily prevent you from getting the virus but help prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

How can you tell the difference between RSV, flu, and COVID-19?

The three respiratory viruses all can cause cold-like symptoms as well as fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. While differences exist between all three viruses, it’s hard to tell from their symptoms alone. The best way to determine which infection you have is by seeing a doctor and getting tested.

It’s also possible to get infected with more than one virus at once. Having a virus can lower immunity and increase the risk of getting another infection. If infections occur together, symptoms can worsen.

Can masks help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses?

Wearing a face mask became widely common during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Pavia says masks are even more effective at preventing the spread of flu.

"Flu almost completely disappeared the first year of the pandemic," Pavia says. "That’s because flu is not as transmissible as COVID-19, so masks have proven to work really well." Masks also help prevent RSV because they can contain highly infectious snot, which can spread when you sneeze.

It’s always good to be considerate of who is next to you. "You never know whether the person you’re standing next to is the parent of a child with cancer or someone who is immunocompromised," Pavia says. "You might be putting them at tremendous risk."

What else can someone do to protect themselves?

Prevention measures such as wearing a high-quality mask in crowded areas, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and staying home when sick are all good ways to help protect yourself and others. But the best way to protect yourself is by getting vaccinated.