How To Distinguish Between Cold, The Flu, RSV, And Covid-19, In Children?

Nikki Attkisson | Last Updated : October 26, 2022

The cold and flu season is just around the corner and the sudden increase in cases of respiratory syncytial virus and influenza, especially in children, is worrying. 

Many of the Children’s Hospitals in major U.S cities are reaching their full capacity with the unexpected spike in respiratory illnesses. 

Here Are The Symptoms That You Need To Know

Although children need more attention in the case of RSV and Influenza, you can avoid crowding up the hospitals unnecessarily for minor symptoms of the common cold by looking out for the more serious symptoms in your children.

How To Distinguish Between Cold, The Flu, RSV, And Covid-19, In Children

If your child has the following symptoms you may need to seek medical attention at the earliest:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal issues like vomiting, nausea, diarrhea
  • High fever
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Runny nose, coughing, and sneezing that lasts more than 4 days

You can get a COVID-19, RSV, and Influenza combined test kit from your doctor, nearest clinic, or other authorized healthcare professionals to identify the right treatment plan. 

What is the difference between the flu, Covid-19, and RSV?

All three are highly contagious respiratory infections that exhibit very similar overall symptoms. Each of them is, however, caused by three different species of viruses: the SARS-CoV-2 causes Covid-19, the Influenza virus causes the flu, and the respiratory syncytial virus causes RSV. 

You need to do an RT PCR to accurately assess which viral infection is at play and it’s even possible to contract multiple viruses at once as well. 

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What is RSV? How does it affect children?

The respiratory syncytial virus is a seasonal virus that usually peaks during the winter and goes away on its own without any complications for most adults. 

For infants under 6 months, RSV can be dangerous and needs immediate medical attention, especially if they have any respiratory or immune system issues. Babies have a higher risk of developing bronchiolitis which causes inflammation of the airways that can lead to breathing issues. 

Common symptoms of RSV:

  • Runny nose
  • Coughing 
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Decreased appetite

For infants: Fatigue, little interest in the activity, irritability, signs of difficulty breathing, discoloration of skin or lips, etc. are some of the symptoms that need attention.

How can I prevent RSV?

Unfortunately, there are no vaccines available for preventing RSV. So the best way to prevent the further spread of the RSV virus is to minimize contact by distancing, washing hands and disinfecting toys frequently, and avoiding crowded places. 

The onset of the flu season:

Influenza is another seasonal contagion that can transmit from infected individuals via the air or even through contaminated surfaces. Hospitals are registering a higher infection rate than in previous years, which may at least be partly explained by the fewer flu shots administered this year. 

Experts recommend getting the flu shot as the most effective tool to combat the virus and avoid further complications from secondary infections like pneumonia. 

Common symptoms of the flu include: 

  • Fever 
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Diarrhea or vomiting

The Common Cold and when to seek medical aid:

Most of the time children are down sick, the common cold is the usual suspect. Symptoms include coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, headache, fever, etc. which can linger for around 3-5 days, and a persistent cough that could last for another few weeks. 

Since there are well over 200 strains or viruses implicated in causing the common cold, there are no vaccines or any specific way for treating it. 

They are extremely common during the first few years of life and it’s entirely normal for the average child to have around 6-8 colds a year. 

If you notice severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, inability to stay hydrated, fatigue, etc. continuing to persist, it is recommended that you consult your physician immediately. 

Final Take:

It’s very difficult to identify the infection based on symptoms alone. If your child has recently come into contact with another person infected with COVID or other infections, then it’s advised to seek medical help leading with that.

You can get an RT PCR test done to more accurately find out the cause of infection which can rule out possibilities of other diseases as well. 


Mayo Clinic (1998-2022) Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (Available On):

Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (n.d) Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19​ (Available On):

Nikki Attkisson

With over 15 years as a practicing journalist, Nikki Attkisson found herself at Powdersville Post now after working at several other publications. She is an award-winning journalist with an entrepreneurial spirit and worked as a journalist covering technology, innovation, environmental issues, politics, health etc. Nikki Attkisson has also worked on product development, content strategy, and editorial management for numerous media companies. She began her career at local news stations and worked as a reporter in national newspapers.

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