A bad flu season Australia exacerbated by the spread of RSV and COVID-19 throughout the community.

The respiratory diseases share many of the same symptoms, which makes it difficult to tell which one you’ve got – or if you’re just coming down with a cold.

Here is a little more information to help you determine if you have RSV, the flu, COVID-19, or a cold.

Woman blowing her nose
If you start getting the sniffles, you may have caught one of several different viruses. (iStock)

It is a highly contagious and common virus. In fact, almost everyone will have contracted it at least once by the time they turn three, according to the Australian Department of Health.

RSV will often be mild, but in severe cases it can prove life-threatening, especially for young children.

An electron microscope image of human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a highly contagious and common disease that can prove life-threatening to children. (AP)

Each of the four diseases share a few common symptoms – things like a runny nose, cough, fever or sore throat may be experienced by someone who has contracted one of them.

However, some of the other symptoms are more closely associated with one or two of the viruses. Fatigue, for example, is common for flu and COVID-19, but not the others.

Here’s a general overview of the symptoms for each, according to information from the Australian Health Department and America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

COVID-19 Flu RSV Cold
Fever Sometimes ordinary ordinary Rare
Cough ordinary ordinary ordinary ordinary
Sore throat ordinary Sometimes Sometimes ordinary
Shortness of breath/wheezing Sometimes None Sometimes None
Fatigue ordinary ordinary None Sometimes
Loss of taste/smell Sometimes Sometimes None Sometimes
Body pain Sometimes ordinary Rarely None
Headache ordinary ordinary Sometimes ordinary
Stuffy/runny nose ordinary Sometimes ordinary ordinary
Diarrhea Rare Sometimes in children None None
The sneeze ordinary None Sometimes ordinary
Vomiting Sometimes ordinary None Rare

A person with RSV may develop an ear infection on top of the other symptoms, although this is less common, and lethargy is a symptom that doctors and other medical professionals will look for in all four.

As the symptoms may be, there are some differences in their occurrence for the different diseases.

According to the CDC, flu symptoms tend to appear suddenly and all at once, generally sometime between one and four days after exposure to the virus.

However, for COVID-19 and RSV, symptoms can develop gradually in stages – this can be over between three to 10 days in the case of RSV, and one to 14 days for COVID-19.

Influenza virus seen under a microscope.
Flu symptoms tend to appear suddenly and all at once, generally sometime between one and four days after exposure to the virus. (Centers for Disease Control)

How long an attack of each disease lasts varies from virus to virus.

An RSV infection, according to the CDC, will usually end after a week or two, and both the flu and a cold can last from a few days to a few weeks.

People can also get over COVID-19 in a few days, but are not considered fully recovered until they have been asymptomatic for seven days, which can take weeks, according to the Australian government’s Healthdirect service.

However, if complications or a severe case of any of the diseases occur, the disease can last much longer.

So how can you tell if it’s RSV, a cold, flu or COVID-19?

Given how similar the symptoms are, you generally won’t be able to tell which virus you have just by judging them.

Of course, the best way to determine what you’ve caught is to get in touch with a doctor, who will often be able to diagnose flu, RSV and colds through signs and symptoms alone, and to get tested.

A dual RAT that checks for COVID-19 and influenza is also available.

Both of these viruses, as well as RSV, can be diagnosed through a swab sent to a pathology lab for testing, while a blood sample can also be taken to check for RSV.

Australians will be able to pick up a rapid antigen test for three viruses at once after it was approved by the Theripudic Goods Association (TGA).
The TGA approved a triple RAT for use earlier this year, which tests for COVID-19, influenza A and B and RSV. (Nine)

Who is more vulnerable to each disease?

Since each of COVID-19, influenza, RSV and the common cold are viral respiratory diseases, it is no great surprise that there are similarities in the groups at risk for them.

Being immunocompromised and having asthma are risk factors for all the diseases, while the Federal Government also says pregnant women and Indigenous Australians are at higher risk of developing complications from both COVID-19 and influenza.

In terms of age groups, severe illness from COVID-19 is generally associated with older people – those aged 65 or over.

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RSV, on the other hand, is more typically associated with life-threatening cases in infants, although it can also pose a risk to older people who have existing heart, lung or immune problems, according to the Department of Health.

Influenza is the worst case of both worlds – both young children aged five and under and adults aged 65 and over are at risk of developing a severe case.

Colds tend to affect children more frequently than adults.

“Children can get between five and 10 colds a year, while adults can get two to four colds each year,” says Healthdirect.

How can I protect myself from the four viruses?

Practicing good hygiene, including washing your hands regularly, covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, cleaning surfaces and throwing away used tissues, can help stop the spread of COVID-19, influenza, RSV and common cold.

Wearing a mask can also help.

An Omicron-effective Pfizer vaccine has been approved in Australia.
Vaccines have been approved in Australia for both COVID-19 and influenza. (AP)

What treatments are available for RSV, flu, COVID-19 and the common cold?

Vaccines are available for both COVID-19 and influenza. Adults are encouraged to get a COVID-19 booster every six months, while influenza is a seasonal vaccine.

Antiviral drugs can be prescribed for at-risk COVID-19 patients, but antibiotics do not work against any of the four diseases, as they are all caused by a virus.

Otherwise, treating each of COVID-19, flu, RSV, and the common cold at home is pretty similar; get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy.

You can also relieve the symptoms of viruses by taking over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

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