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With So Many Viruses Circulating, Can You Tell Them Apart?

SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is circulating, but so are influenza viruses and RSV. We share more information on whether or not they are distinguishable from one another.

Woman engages in flu screening via a telehealth visit.

Alongside SARS-CoV-2 variants BA.4 and BA.5, we are approaching what could be an influx of seasonal influenza cases, all in conjunction with other viruses circulating too, like Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

If you find yourself ill, how can you or your healthcare provider know what you've been infected with? Unfortunately, the answer is more nuanced than one might think.

That’s mainly because these three viruses affect your respiratory system, are spread in the same way and even share many of the same symptoms.

“Cough, runny nose and fever are common to all respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Frank Esper, pediatric infectious disease specialist in an article for Cleveland Clinic. Other symptoms of all three infections include chills, fatigue, congestion, headache and sore throat.

There are a few symptoms that can be good hints, shared Cleveland Clinic: like wheezing with RSV, loss of taste and smell appearing more frequently with COVID-19 than with other viruses, and a very high fever with influenza. Ultimately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says you cannot tell the difference just by looking at the symptoms alone, especially between flu and COVID.

That’s why testing is needed to tell apart the illness and to confirm a diagnosis.

COVID-19 tests worked well for the pandemic, so by having better and more widely available tests for other viruses as well, it can help to dispel the confusion, explained Dr. Jonathan Anderson, Executive Medical Director, International Regions at CSL Seqirus, leading influenza vaccines provider.

“That would be a great help, especially in a season like we are going through at the moment, where it’s virtually impossible for people to determine whether they’ve got influenza or COVID based on their symptoms,” he said during a recent BioMelbourne Network event.

Just recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an at-home COVID-19, RSV and Influenza test.

According to the FDA, at home testing may help people determine whether or not they should ‘self-isolate or take other health care steps after discussion with a medical professional.’