Are Those Sniffles I Hear?

Understanding Cold, Flu and RSV Symptoms

Although you may do everything you can to keep your family well over the winter and flu season — getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, eating nourishing meals — you or your little one might come down with a bug.

How do you tell the difference between a cold, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Father Checking Son's Temperature"A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself after a period of time," according to Tamera Martin, RN, Manager of Pediatrics and NICU Services at Sky Ridge Medical Center. "Flu is more dangerous than the common cold and can lead to severe complications, such as pneumonia."

"RSV is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. In healthy children, RSV clears up in one to two weeks, however, the infection can be severe and may cause other respiratory infections, such as bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia," adds Ms. Martin. Bronchiolitis can cause coughing, wheezing and severe difficulty breathing that may lead to a low level of oxygen.

What may seem like a cold could, in fact, be the flu or RSV. It is important to know the differences between cold, flu and RSV symptoms.

Signs to Watch For

Colds and the flu do have a lot in common. They both can cause coughing, a runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes. But they aren't the same.

A cold usually:

  • Causes symptoms two to three days after infection
  • Lasts a week
  • Causes headache or only a mild fever

However, the flu often:

  • Comes on quickly
  • Lasts as long as two to three weeks
  • Raises body temperature to 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Causes a headache as well as other aches and pains

RSV usually causes mild symptoms, including:

  • A stuffy, runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Slight fever
  • Wheezing

RSV symptoms may linger a week or two. If your child is infected, ask your pediatrician about fluids, rest and medication to reduce fever or pain.

How can you tell if your child's infection is serious? If your child is laboring for each breath — nostrils flaring, grunting, unable to drink, muscles between the ribs retracting — seek emergency medical attention right away.

Heading Off Problems

To protect your children from infection, have them:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 15 to 20 seconds.
  • Use tissues for runny noses. They're more sanitary than handkerchiefs.
  • Cover mouth and nose for coughs and sneezes.
  • Don't share cups or utensils with other children.
  • Avoid crowded places during cold, flu and RSV season.

Do you know the difference between cold, flu and RSV?

When in doubt, use First Call® for Children. When your doctor's office is closed, our free Nurse Advice Line can answer your questions. Give us a call at 303-563-3300. First Call for Children is available Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and 24 hours a day on weekends and holidays.