There’s a trio of viruses spreading in the U.S. — COVID-19, the flu and RSV — and some in the medical world are calling it a “tripledemic.”
Public health officials have seen “elevated” levels of all three viruses circulating in the U.S. ahead of the approaching winter holidays, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky warned at a Dec. 5 media briefing.
If you’re feeling sick, it can be tough to differentiate among COVID-19, the flu and RSV because they share similar symptoms and can also look like the common cold.
When it comes to COVID-19, the CDC reports cases and deaths have risen in the past few weeks, as of Dec. 16. Meanwhile, Walenksy said at the briefing that flu and RSV cases are higher than what’s been historically typical this season.
It’s possible that you might be sick with one of the viruses. But keep in mind that from late August through March, it’s also a prime time to get a cold, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Here’s what your symptoms may mean.
Am I sick with COVID, RSV, the flu or simply a cold?
Before getting into symptoms, one characteristic COVID-19, the flu and RSV shares is that they’re respiratory infections affecting the airways, lungs, sinuses and throat. The cold is similar in that it is an upper respiratory infection affecting the nose and throat.
COVID-19 and the flu have quite a few overlapping symptoms, according to the CDC, including:
— Trouble breathing
— Feeling tired
— Sore throat
— Runny or a stuffy nose
Diarrhea is listed as a flu and COVID-19 symptom by the CDC. However, while anyone with COVID-19 can experience diarrhea, it is more likely that children with the flu will experience the symptom, according to the agency.
The CDC notes that COVID-19 symptoms may take longer to show up after an initial infection compared with the flu.
Overall, the flu is the most likely to result in muscle aches and a fever compared to COVID-19, a cold and RSV, according to NYU Langone Health.
In the U.S., the flu and RSV is hitting children hard and overwhelming hospitals, NPR reports.
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can affect anyone with “cold-like” symptoms and has the potential to be most severe for babies and older adults, according to the CDC.
The most common symptoms of RSV and a cold
Similarly to COVID-19 and the flu, RSV symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, include:
— Trouble breathing, including wheezing and shortness of breath
— Feeling tired
— Stuffy nose
Other symptoms include sneezing, flaring nostrils, lack of appetite, and “head bobbing or chest caving in between and under ribs with each breath,” the American Academy of Pediatrics reports.
The common cold also shares overlapping symptoms of COVID-19, the flu and RSV, according to Mayo Clinic.
— Low-grade fever
— Runny or stuffy nose
Meanwhile, sneezing, body aches and a mild headache are also cold symptoms.
Getting evaluated for COVID-19 or the flu
With COVID-19 and the flu, the CDC reports that “you cannot tell the difference between” the pair based on symptoms.
Luckily, there is a test that can detect whether you have COVID-19, the flu and even RSV that you can get through a health care provider. Options include a test made by Labcorp and another created by Quest Diagnostics.
If all three are ruled out, there’s potential that you could have a cold.
Generally, good habits to prevent yourself from getting sick include washing hands, avoiding touching your face, avoiding close physical contact, staying home and cleaning surfaces, according to Intermountain Healthcare based in Nevada.