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Navigating Respiratory Viruses This Fall and Winter

To protect ourselves, our family members and our communities, it is important to understand the viruses we’re most likely to come in contact with this fall and winter. This includes the most common symptoms, the groups at highest risk and the prevention and treatment steps available to help us stay healthy.

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer Michael F. Sabitoni

“As we’ve already seen, all of these viruses can lead to serious health complications, and in certain situations can even be life-threatening,” said LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Trustee Michael F. Sabitoni. “Fortunately, this is the first fall and winter season where vaccines are available for all three of the viruses that cause most hospitalizations.”

Know the Different Viruses and Their Symptoms

Influenza (Flu): This highly contagious respiratory infection is different from the common cold. While many cold and flu symptoms are similar, flu symptoms usually come on quickly and tend to be more severe than a cold. It’s estimated that about eight percent of the U.S. gets sick from the flu each year. Children under age 18 and older adults are more likely to get sick. Flu can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis and hospitalization.

COVID-19: The pandemic may be behind us, but COVID-19 is likely here to stay. Most cases of this highly infectious virus are mild, though more severe symptoms of respiratory distress (e.g., shortness of breath) can lead to hospitalization and death. These serious outcomes are more likely among people who have underlying health conditions or are unvaccinated.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): RSV is a very common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but RSV can also cause decreased appetite, fever and difficulty breathing. Infants, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have RSV develop into severe respiratory infections such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia that can lead to hospitalization. The CDC notes that almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.

Prevention Steps & Treatment Tools

Vaccines: Vaccination remains the most effective tool for preventing infection and reducing the severity of these respiratory viruses. Seasonal flu shots are recommended each year and updated COVID-19 vaccines are widely available.

With the recent release of the RSV vaccine, there are now vaccines available for all three fall and winter respiratory viruses for the first time. The RSV vaccine is recommended for babies, toddlers and adults age 60 and older. Pregnant women can also talk to their doctor about the possibility of getting the RSV vaccine during their pregnancy.

Click here for more information about vaccine recommendations and resources specific to the different viruses and risk groups.

Testing: With so many overlapping symptoms, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between the common cold, the flu, COVID-19 and RSV. The LHSFNA’s Cold vs. Flu vs. COVID-19 fact sheet provides guidance in this area, and COVID-19 tests are also widely available. However, the best way to determine whether you or a loved one has a cold, the flu or RSV is to see your doctor. Early testing can help determine the best treatment option and also help you make decisions that will ultimately protect your family, friends and coworkers too.

Treatment: Most people recover from respiratory viruses on their own within one to two weeks. However, antiviral medications prescribed by a healthcare provider and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can typically help reduce the severity of symptoms and limit the spread of viruses to others. At this time, antiviral medication for RSV isn’t recommended regularly, so adults should manage symptoms with OTC pain relievers and talk to their healthcare provider before giving nonprescription medicines to children.

Other preventive measures:

In addition to vaccination, testing and treatment, there are other steps people can take to further reduce their risk. These steps include practicing frequent handwashing with soap and water, ensuring proper ventilation to improve indoor air quality, maintaining physical distancing in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces and wearing an N95 or surgical mask in crowded indoor environments.

The fall and winter seasons bring a heightened risk of getting sick from respiratory viruses, but there are many steps we can take to understand and reduce the chances of serious illness. Together, we can navigate these challenges and keep ourselves, our families and our communities as healthy as possible.

[Nick Fox]

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