You may have seen it in the news, on your social media feed, in your family group chat or in announcements from your kid’s school: this is a bad season for respiratory viruses. With COVID-19, RSV and influenza circulating, many people have found themselves under the weather. The surge of respiratory viruses, especially in kids and older people who are at higher risk of hospitalization, has been straining our health care system as hospitals struggling with staffing shortages try to keep up.
What’s going around?
The three big viruses spreading this season are COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza (the flu). All three are respiratory viruses, and they primarily affect your sinuses and throat. These viruses spread from droplets created when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Viruses can also spread when you touch a surface that has infected droplets on it, such as a doorknob or someone’s hand, then touch your own eyes, nose or mouth.
If you’re feeling sick, refer to the following symptoms and key indicators to help you determine which virus you have.
- Onset after exposure: two to 14 days
- Most common symptoms: cough, sore throat, fever, headache, body aches, runny nose and congestion
- Unique symptoms: loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath
- You may consider testing to know whether you need to isolate from loved ones, or if you could benefit from an antiviral treatment such as Paxlovid.
- Onset after exposure: one to four days
- Most common symptoms: chills, fatigue, fever, headache, sore throat, runny nose
- Key identifier: flu symptoms usually come on suddenly and are consistent for one to five days.
- Onset after exposure: four to six days, comes on in stages
- Most common symptoms: coughing, wheezing, runny nose, congestion, fever
- RSV is most common in children, although adults can get it, too.
Regardless of which symptoms you are experiencing, the only way to know for sure which virus you have is to get tested. If you’re at high risk for severe illness, ask your health care provider about taking the prescription flu medication oseltamivir (also known as Tamiflu). You should also get a COVID-19 test, because if you test positive you may be eligible for the antiviral Paxlovid.
What makes this season different?
Cold and flu season comes every winter, kicking off in October and peaking between December and March. Over the last few years, this time frame brought surges in COVID-19 cases, as people spend more time inside where viruses can spread more easily. However, the protective measures taken throughout the winter of 2020 and 2021, such as masking and online learning for school children, helped keep flu and RSV transmission down.
But this season we’ve seenCOVID-19, RSV and flu numbers rise simultaneously, and it makes this year’s sick season look and feel intense, leaving many of us asking “Is everyone sick?”
Recent Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) modeling, published Jan. 6, shows that flu levels probably peaked in mid-December but remain high in Oregon. The modeling also shows that the number of COVID-19-positive patients in hospitals increased after months of holding steady. RSV cases peaked in November but also remain elevated. While cases are trending downward, we are still not out of the woods. Case numbers remain well above average and continue to strain our hospital system.
How to avoid getting sick
To keep yourself and your loved ones healthy and out of the hospital, remember the tried-and-true methods for reducing transmission of respiratory viruses.
- Get a flu shot.
- Stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations, including the updated booster.
- Clean all high-touch surfaces, including doorknobs, faucets, chairs, countertops, tables and cell phones.
- Regularly wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.
- Cover coughs and sneezes with the inside of your elbow, or with a tissue that you immediately throw away after use.
- If you feel sick, stay home and limit contact with others.
- Mask up in crowded indoor places, especially if you are high risk.
If you start to experience symptoms
If you or a family member begin to experience mild, cold-like symptoms and are not at high risk for severe illness, you should be able to manage the virus at home and see it go away on its own in one to two weeks. For mild symptoms, we encourage you to stay home from work, if possible, keep your child home from childcare or school, and avoid social gatherings. At home, try to get plenty of sleep and fluids to help your body heal. You can manage fever and pain with over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers, but talk to your health care provider before giving your child over-the-counter cold medicines, which are typically not recommended for children.
If your symptoms worsen or you are at high risk, talk to your health care provider right away to make a plan for testing and treatment, such as Tamiflu or Paxlovid. Symptoms to look out for that may indicate a more serious infection include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Symptoms of dehydration such as headache, fatigue, dizziness or dry mouth, lips or tongue
- Gray or blue color to tongue, lips or skin
- Decreased energy and alertness
The bottom line
This is a bad season for respiratory viruses, but there are easy things you can do to help keep yourself, your family and your community healthy. Get your flu shot, stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines and wear a mask when you can. You can look for a COVID-19 or flu vaccine by ZIP code at Vaccines.gov. For help finding free mask, check out this website.