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RSV, Flu, COVID: Here’s What Parents Need to Know About the Impending ‘Tripledemic’

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Whether you’ve been unfortunate enough to experience it in your own household or have just heard the rumors at school drop-off, you’re likely very aware that cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the flu and COVID-19 are all on the rise. This has led many experts to worry about an impending “tripledemic.” Here’s what parents need to know, including how to keep kids safe this holiday season.

What Is the Tripledemic?

The tripledemic refers to three types of viral respiratory infections that may emerge this winter: RSV, influenza and COVID-19. It’s worth noting that none of these viruses are exactly new—COVID-19 has been around for three years now and RSV and influenza have been around for decades. But some experts are concerned that a recent surge in RSV is overlapping with an increase in COVID-19 cases and an earlier-than-usual flu season, according to CDC figures. In other words, emerging data is suggesting that this could be a bad flu year, on top of a bad RSV year and, you know, COVID.

“We're in for a little bit of a rough winter in terms of respiratory viruses,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. “RSV has struck with a vengeance — ERs and hospitals are already at capacity in much of the country, and this will continue for a bit.”

The reason behind these surges? Many children simply weren't exposed to respiratory viruses earlier in the pandemic due to masking and social distancing. This has created a so-called “immunity gap.”

What’s the Difference Between RSV, Influenza and COVID?

These three respiratory infections can look very similar. Here are the symptoms to look out for, according to the CDC:

RSV

  • runny nose
  • decrease in appetite
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • wheezing

Influenza (flu)

  • fever or chills (note: not everyone with flu will have a fever)
  • coughing
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches
  • headaches
  • fatigue (tiredness)
  • some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

COVID-19

  • fever or chills
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • fatigue
  • muscle or body aches
  • headache
  • new loss of taste or smell
  • sore throat
  • congestion or runny nose
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea

Per the CDC, you cannot tell the difference between COVID and the flu by symptoms alone, and specific testing is needed to confirm a diagnosis.

As for RSV and COVID, Sandra Bonat, M.D. and pediatric physician advisor for Empass Health also urges parents to test if their kids exhibit any of the above symptoms, but tells us that the main difference between the two viruses is that RSV in infants and small children is more likely to cause wheezing and difficulty breathing. “Parents should have their child seen by a healthcare professional if their child shows signs of difficult breathing including fast breathing, pulling hard to breath, flaring of the nostrils while breathing and wheezing.”

How Do I Protect My Kids?

To protect your family, doctors stress the importance of getting vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19. (There is no current vaccine for RSV, although there are several in the works and they could be coming to families soon). Dr. Bonat also advises teaching kids to cover their mouths when coughing and sneezing and practicing good hand hygiene. “Parents and children over 2 can also wear a well-fitting face mask for another layer of protection,” she adds.

Bottom line: All the measures you took last winter and the one before to keep your kids safe (keeping them home from school when sick, avoiding crowds, staying up-to-date on vaccines, lots of hand sanitizer, etc.) are the ones you should be continuing this year.

What Parents Need to Know About RSV, According to Pediatricians