You may have heard of the scary "tridemic" of respiratory illnesses—the triple combination of influenza, COVID-19, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)—circulating right now. The three illnesses have similar symptoms, and are spread in similar ways. For anyone traveling via airplane, exposure to these illnesses pose their own specific risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Respiratory infections are a leading cause for seeking medical care among returning travelers. Common respiratory infections include COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold," the CDC advises. "Masking is a critical public health tool for preventing the spread of respiratory diseases."
But what are the differences between these respiratory illnesses? When should we be masking while traveling? Thrillist spoke to registered respiratory therapist Mandy De Vries, MSc., RRT, RRT-NPS, and vice president of education for the American Association for Respiratory Care to answer these questions and more.
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Should we be wearing masks when traveling? If so, when?
"Yes, wearing masks during travel is advised, especially in crowded and enclosed settings, to minimize the spread of respiratory viruses. Masks should be worn consistently, including in airports, airplanes, and public transportation," De Vries said.
The CDC specifically advises to wear a mask in these circumstances:
- You are in crowded or tight spaces with poor ventilation like airport jetways, airplanes when the ventilation system is off, seaports, or when in close-contact situations like on a train or bus.
- There are high levels of respiratory disease at your travel destination or in the community you are traveling through.
- You or someone you have close contact with has a weakened immune system or are at increased risk for severe illness.
- You are sick or experiencing symptoms of a respiratory illness (although it is better to delay travel if you are sick).
- You were exposed to a person with COVID-19 in the last 10 days.
"Wearing a mask during travel can also help protect others who cannot avoid being in crowded places when they are traveling," the CDC states. "Some of these people might be more vulnerable, like babies under 6 months of age, persons over 65 years of age, or those with a weakened immune system."
What are the differences between the three main respiratory illnesses circulating right now?
"The main respiratory illnesses circulating currently are influenza (flu), COVID-19, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). The flu often presents with sudden onset of fever, muscle aches, and fatigue. COVID-19 symptoms include fever, cough, and breathing difficulties, with potential severe respiratory complications. RSV primarily affects young children and infants and adults over the age of 65, causing symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulties," De Vries said.
Is it possible to get sick with all three illnesses at once?
"Yes, it is possible to contract all three illnesses simultaneously, although the likelihood is relatively low. Co-infections can occur, leading to compounded symptoms and potential complications, highlighting the importance of preventive measures," De Vries said.
What are the best ways travelers can protect themselves, other than masking?
"Travelers should prioritize regular hand washing or the use of hand sanitizers to maintain proper hand hygiene. Avoiding close contact with sick individuals and practicing respiratory etiquette (covering mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing) is essential. Additionally, staying up to date on vaccinations, particularly for the flu and COVID-19, is crucial for protection," De Vries said.
How high is the risk now of getting sick, and is it higher or similar to during earlier points in the pandemic?
"The risk of getting sick with these respiratory illnesses varies based on factors like vaccination rates, virus variants, local transmission rates and even the immune system of the individual. With vaccination efforts and public health measures, the risk might be lower compared to earlier stages of the pandemic. However, emerging variants and changing conditions could influence the risk, underscoring the importance of ongoing precautions such as hand washing, mask-wearing, and vaccination status," De Vries said.