When Should I Worry About...

Flu Vs. COVID-19 Vs. RSV: Here's the Best Way to Tell Which It Is

Nov. 8, 2022 - Katie McCallum

The threats are all around. It's flu season, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases are rising across the country and COVID-19, of course, is still lurking out there.

For anyone experiencing respiratory symptoms right now — sore throat, cough and runny nose — the question quickly becomes: Which do I have?

"During the respiratory season — the times when we see high rates of these various upper respiratory viral infections — it can be very hard to determine what you have based on symptoms alone," says Dr. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist.

Knowing which you have matters since it affects treatment. That's why it's important to get tested this season.

Is it the flu, COVID-19 or a cold? There's a test for that

We're all familiar with COVID-19 testing by now. But if you didn't know, there are also tests for the flu and even a few of the viruses that cause the common cold, including RSV.

"Additionally, there are tests which can detect multiple respiratory viruses at the same time, " adds Dr. Long.

Knowing whether it's the flu, COVID-19 or a cold can help make sure you do the right thing in terms of your treatment and health.

"We don't have great options for treating a cold, but we also don't want someone that we know has RSV to be taking antibiotics or a flu antiviral they don't need," says Dr. Long.

For those who have the flu, almost anyone qualifies to receive Tamiflu, the antiviral used to treat it. There are even pediatric doses for young kids.

"If you have COVID-19, your doctor may prescribe oral medications or monoclonal antibodies," says Dr. Long. "There are specific criteria for both of these treatments, but I think a lot more people qualify for oral medications than they probably realize."

The bottom line: If you're feeling under the weather, call your doctor. He or she can help advise you on which test is most applicable for you based on your symptoms and which viruses are circulating most predominantly at that point in time.


If it's not COVID-19 or the flu, it's still important to stay home when you're sick

If you're experiencing respiratory symptoms, don't think that just because you're negative for the flu, COVID-19 and RSV, it's OK to go to work, school, church or fly on a plane.

You likely have some type of common cold, and you could be contagious.

"All viruses that spread during respiratory season are transmitted the same way — from person to person through droplets we release as we cough, sneeze and even speak," says Dr. Long. "If your tests are negative but you have symptoms, stay home."

Stay up-to-date
By signing up, you will receive our newsletter with articles, videos, health tips and more.
Please Enter Email
Please Enter Valid Email