Children and common respiratory infections: COVID-19, flu, RSV and the common cold

Our children are back in school, the COVID-19 pandemic is still here, flu season is upon us, and the common cold never goes away. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned this year about the rise of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus that is most severe in children under age two but can infect school-aged children.

What’s the difference?

What to know:COVID-19FluRSVCommon cold
SymptomsAbdominal pain
Fever (brief episodes)
Muscle or body aches
Nausea or vomiting
New loss of taste or smell
Shortness of breath
Sore throat
Loss of appetite
Runny nose
Sore throat
Decreased appetite
Runny nose
Runny or stuffy nose
Sore throat
Watery eyes
Onset after exposure2-14 days1-4 days4-6 days, in stages (not all at once)2-3 days
NotesNot everyone gets the same symptoms, or any symptoms.Unlike COVID-19, usually comes on very suddenly. Your child may feel perfectly fine one day and be very sick the next.This is a common cause of wheezing in kids under 2. In older children, symptoms may not appear any different from the cold. 

How does each spread?

The flu, COVID-19, RSV and the common cold all spread the same way: The sick person shares the virus by sending droplets into the air or onto a surface. You can get sick if the droplets land on you, or if you touch a surface that has the virus on it and then put your fingers in your nose, mouth, or eyes.

The ways we can protect ourselves from infection, and what to do if our children get sick, are also very similar.

What you can do to prevent respiratory infections

The best way to protect you and your family is for everyone over the age of 6 months in your household to get a flu vaccine, and for everyone who is old enough to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC says you can get both vaccines at the same time.

It’s also important to keep practicing these good habits to prevent infection:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.
  • Keep unwashed hands away from your mouth, nose, and eyes. When not wearing a mask, make sure to cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, not your hand.
  • Ages two and older should wear a mask in all indoor public settings and most outdoor settings. Also consider wearing a mask wherever you may have close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.
  • Clean and disinfect things that are often touched, like doorknobs, countertops, and toys.
  • Practice physical distancing and stay away from anyone who might be sick.

If your child gets sick:

Keep your child at home and away from everyone else in the house who’s healthy. Do the same for yourself if you have symptoms.

If your child has any of the symptoms listed above, you should call your primary care provider to determine if they need to be tested. 

  • Most children with cough, fever, difficulty breathing, or loss of smell likely will need to be tested for COVID-19. 
  • Other tests may also help guide treatment. For example, if a child under 2 years of age has a positive flu test, the provider may recommend an antiviral medication that your child can take by mouth. 

Taking these steps will not only help you protect your own family from respiratory infections, but will also help protect your children’s classmates and teachers to continue having a safe, in-person school year.