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RSV vs. Flu: A Comparison Guide

A sick woman blowing her nose into a tissue.

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RSV vs. Flu: A Comparison Guide

You’ll often hear this time of year referred to as “cold and flu season,” but many respiratory illnesses spread more frequently during the winter months, making it sometimes difficult to navigate your symptoms and know which illness you may be dealing with.

For instance, RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can cause symptoms similar to a common cold. And on the other hand, influenza, also known as the flu, is another contagious respiratory illness. It can present with more severe symptoms, including fever. But exactly what differentiates the flu and RSV? Keep reading to learn all you need to know to help you determine whether you may be experiencing RSV or the flu.

Common Symptoms of RSV vs. the Flu

First, it’s important to know that the two conditions can often begin similarly but have some unique symptoms that distinguish them. RSV symptoms typically appear in stages but usually include the following:

  • Congestion
  • Decreased appetite
  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing

RSV symptoms can be severe for babies, older adults and people with a weakened immune system, and can cause difficulty breathing. If you or a family member experience a breathing issue, please head to your nearest ER.

Common symptoms of the flu include:

  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting

Flu symptoms appear in stages, not all at once, and you may not experience every symptom. In infants and children, other symptoms can be irritability and breathing difficulties. Some common symptoms of the flu include:

Transmission and Incubation of RSV vs. Flu

When looking at RSV vs. the flu, something else to consider is the virus’ transmission rate and incubation period — or how easily it spreads and how long you can have each virus before showing symptoms.

How RSV Spreads

RSV is highly contagious and spreads through the air. When someone with RSV coughs or sneezes on you, virus droplets can enter your mouth, nose or eyes. You can also contract it through direct contact with a person or surface with the infection. The incubation period, or the length of time before you begin to show symptoms of RSV, is typically between four to six days. You may become contagious one to two days before symptoms appear.

How the Flu Spreads

The flu also spreads through contact when air droplets land in your nose, mouth or eyes. You can also get the viruses like the flu by touching public surfaces and then touching your face. You’ll begin to experience symptoms within one to four days after infection, and it’s possible to infect others before your symptoms appear.

Diagnosis and Testing

If you’re feeling ill but unsure what virus you may be experiencing, don’t wait — visit your local AdventHealth Centra Care for testing. The sooner you can be tested and diagnosed, the sooner you’ll know whether you’re experiencing RSV or the flu and be on the path to recovery.

Methods of Diagnosing RSV

To diagnose RSV, a clinical evaluation is usually the first step. During a physical exam, your care provider will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs. They may order lab and imaging tests if they hear wheezing or other abnormal sounds.

Although these are not usually required, your doctor may order blood tests to check your white cell count and look for bacteria and viruses. They may also swab your nose or mouth to check for signs of the virus.

Methods of Diagnosing the Flu

For the flu, there are rapid influenza diagnostic tests that can give your provider a quick answer. For this kind of test, your provider will take a swab from your nose or mouth. In other instances, your doctor may also turn to a PCR (polymer chain reaction) test, which provides more information and is more accurate than a rapid test.

Prevention Strategies

Although it’s not always possible to prevent these kinds of respiratory illnesses, there are steps you can take to promote better health.

Preventive Measures for RSV

Following some easy precautions can help you keep yourself safe. These include washing your hands often throughout the day and avoiding touching your face after shaking someone’s hand or touching public surfaces. Another step you can consider is getting a vaccine for RSV. RSV vaccines are available for at-risk groups, including older adults and those who are 32 – 36 weeks pregnant. In addition, there is now an approved antibody to help protect infants from RSV.

Preventive Measures for the Flu

Vaccines are available for the most common strains of influenza. To remain effective in preventing the flu and minimizing your symptoms, we recommend getting a new flu shot annually. And if you get infected with a different strain of flu than the one you were vaccinated for, the vaccine can still help protect you from serious symptoms. And, as with any virus, a great way to help prevent getting or spreading the flu is by keeping your hands and surfaces clean and avoiding touching your face after touching public surfaces.

Treatment Options for the Flu and RSV

For both the flu and RSV, you can use over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, a cough suppressant and saline sprays. Staying hydrated and getting as much rest as possible is also essential in helping your body heal.

If you experience breathing difficulties or other complications, don’t hesitate to seek emergency care.

Antiviral Medications for the Flu

Your doctor may offer antiviral medications for the flu if you have underlying medical conditions, experience severe symptoms or live with people at risk of developing severe complications if they get the flu.

For an antiviral medication to be effective, you must take it within 48 hours of your symptoms appearing. The antiviral can shorten the duration and severity of the illness.

Most people don’t need antiviral medications for the flu, however. To self-treat it, you need to get plenty of rest and drink lots of water. You can also take over-the-counter options like acetaminophen, and if you have a cough, you can take a cough suppressant.

Tackling RSV and the Flu

If you experience any severe symptoms or if you’re not sure what illness you have, it’s essential that you seek whole-health care. Make a reservation at your local AdventHealth Centra Care for a diagnosis or treatment guidance to get back to feeling your best as soon as possible.

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