Items like kleenex and medication to help someone dealing with COVID-19, RSV, or the flu

How To Tell COVID-19, RSV, and the Flu Apart: A Guide to Symptoms, Testing, and Prevention

Published October 5, 2023

As COVID-19 continues to impact our daily lives, it's important to be aware of other respiratory illnesses that cause similar symptoms. One of these illnesses is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common illness that typically affects children but can also affect adults. Another illness that can be mistaken for COVID-19 is influenza, known as the flu. It's important to know how to tell COVID-19, RSV, and the flu apart. 

In this blog post, you will learn about the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, RSV, and the seasonal flu, how to tell them apart, whether you can have more than one virus at the same time, what to do if you test positive, when to seek medical care, and how to prevent getting sick in the future.

Fast Facts About COVID-19, RSV, and the Flu

  • COVID-19, RSV, and flu are contagious respiratory illnesses that can cause similar symptoms. 
  • The treatments for COVID-19, RSV, and flu vary depending on the severity of the illness. 
  • Prevention measures for all three illnesses include getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, washing hands frequently, and avoiding close contact with infected people. 

Recognize the Symptoms of COVID-19, RSV, and the Flu

COVID-19, RSV, and the flu have similar symptoms, like fever, cough, fatigue, and body aches. However, some differences in symptoms can help you distinguish between these illnesses.

COVID-19 symptoms range from mild to severe, and may include a sore throat, cough, loss of taste or smell, and trouble breathing. Some people are asymptomatic, which means they don’t experience any symptoms. 

RSV symptoms are similar to the common cold, such as a runny nose, cough, and mild fever. In severe cases, RSV infection can lead to more serious illnesses like pneumonia or bronchiolitis.  

Flu symptoms are similar to COVID-19 and RSV but may include chills, headaches, and vomiting. 

Symptom COVID-19 RSV Flu
Fever Common Common Common
Cough Common Common Common
Shortness of breath Common Sometimes Rare
Fatigue Common Sometimes Common
Body aches Common Sometimes Common
Loss of taste/smell Common Rare Rare
Sore throat Sometimes Sometimes Common
Headache Sometimes Sometimes Common
Runny/stuffy nose Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes
Nausea/vomiting Sometimes Rare Sometimes
Diarrhea Sometimes Rare Sometimes
Wheezing Rare Common Rare
Chest pain Rare Rare Rare

It's important to note that not everyone with these viruses will experience all of these symptoms, and some people may experience other symptoms not listed here. 

Symptoms vary in severity from person to person. If you are experiencing symptoms of any of these viruses, you should get tested and follow the advice of your healthcare provider.

How To Tell COVID-19, RSV, and the Flu Apart

COVID-19, RSV, and the flu are all respiratory illnesses that can cause similar signs and symptoms. However, some key differences help distinguish them from each other.


COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and primarily spreads through respiratory droplets from an infected person's nose or mouth. Some common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

While some people experience mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, others can become severely ill, particularly those who are older, have weakened immune systems, or have underlying chronic medical conditions. COVID-19 can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and organ failure. 

Visit our FAQ about Symptoms for more information and treatment options. 


Respiratory syncytial virus is a common respiratory virus that can cause illness in people of all ages, but is most severe in very young infants, children, and older adults. RSV spreads through respiratory secretions and contact with contaminated surfaces. Some common RSV symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing, especially in infants

Most people recover from RSV without treatment, but severe symptoms can lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia, particularly in infants and older adults.


The flu is caused by influenza viruses and is highly contagious. It is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Some common flu symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (this is more common in children)

Most people with the flu recover within a few days to two weeks, but some develop severe complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections. The flu can be particularly dangerous for young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

Can You Have Multiple Respiratory Illnesses at Once? 

It is possible to have more than one virus at the same time. For example, you could be infected with COVID-19 and RSV simultaneously. If you have symptoms of multiple illnesses, you should get tested so you can receive appropriate medical care.

Getting Tested for COVID-19, RSV, and the Flu in the United States: Where To Go and What To Expect

Getting tested for COVID-19, RSV, and the flu is essential for accurate diagnosis and proper treatment. In the United States, testing for these respiratory illnesses is widely available through healthcare providers and testing centers.

Get Tested for COVID-19

There are Test to Treat locations in communities across America where you can get tested and receive follow-up treatment. 

You can also access COVID-19 testing from your healthcare provider, pharmacy, or local health department. 

At-home tests can be purchased from retailers in your community and online. You can also get free COVID-19 tests from the United States Postal Services website. Click here to submit an order.  

COVID-19 tests are typically done using a nasal or throat swab, and results can be available within hours to several days, depending on the type of test. Check out our recent article about the different types of COVID-19 tests to learn more. 

Testing for RSV and the Flu

Testing for RSV and the flu can be done through your healthcare provider, pharmacies, or local health department. RSV testing typically involves a nasal swab, and flu testing is done through a nasal or throat swab or a blood test.

It's important to note that testing availability and requirements may vary depending on your location and individual circumstances. Some testing sites may require an appointment or a referral from a healthcare provider, while others may offer walk-in testing. 

The United States Food & Drug Administration recently authorized over-the-counter tests that can detect COVID-19 and the flu, helping people quickly receive a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.   

If you're experiencing symptoms of a respiratory illness, getting tested right away can help prevent the spread of the virus, and ensure you receive timely medical care. If you test positive for COVID-19, RSV, or the flu, follow the guidance of your healthcare provider and local health department.

What To Do if You Test Positive for COVID-19, RSV, or the Flu

If you test positive for COVID-19, RSV, or the flu, you should follow your doctor’s treatment recommendations. Here are some additional things you can do after being diagnosed with a respiratory illness. 

Stay Home and Isolate

As soon as you receive a positive test result, it's crucial to stay home and isolate yourself from others, including family members and friends, to prevent the spread of the virus. Follow the guidelines your local health department or doctor provides on how long you should isolate, which may vary depending on the specific virus.

Notify Close Contacts

If you had close contact with anyone when you were contagious, you should notify them so they can take appropriate measures to protect themselves and others. Close contacts typically include people you have been within 6 feet of for at least 15 minutes, starting two days before your symptoms (or two days before your positive test if you are asymptomatic).

Follow Medical Advice

Always consult your healthcare provider for specific medical advice and follow their instructions carefully. They may prescribe medications, provide guidance on managing symptoms, and monitor your condition. In some instances, you may be eligible for antiviral medication to help control the duration and severity of your illness. 

Be sure to promptly communicate any changes in your symptoms or health status to your healthcare provider and seek emergency medical attention if needed. 

Take Care of Yourself

Rest, stay hydrated, and take over-the-counter medications as directed by your healthcare provider to relieve symptoms such as fever, cough, or congestion. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption, as these can worsen respiratory symptoms. If you have any underlying health conditions, follow your healthcare provider's advice on managing them while you are ill.

Practice Good Hygiene 

Follow proper hygiene practices to prevent the spread of the virus to others. This includes covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze, disposing of used tissues properly, and washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Monitor for Worsening Symptoms 

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, RSV, or the flu, monitor your symptoms closely and seek medical attention if they worsen. Symptoms such as difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, bluish lips or face, or severe or persistent symptoms warrant immediate medical attention.

Follow Public Health Guidelines 

Stay informed and follow the latest public health guidelines and recommendations from local health authorities, the CDC, or other reputable sources. This may include guidance on mask-wearing, social distancing, and other preventive measures to help reduce the spread of the virus in your community.

Remember, testing positive for COVID-19, RSV, or the flu does not necessarily mean you will experience severe illness. Still, it's important to take appropriate steps to prevent the spread of the virus to others and take care of your health. 

When To Seek Medical Care for COVID-19, RSV, or the Flu

Here is a summary of five things to watch for to help you decide when to seek medical attention if you have COVID-19, RSV, or the flu:

  1. Difficulty breathing: If you are experiencing difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or chest pain, seek medical attention immediately. These symptoms could indicate a severe respiratory issue that requires prompt medical evaluation and treatment.
  2. Persistent or worsening symptoms: If symptoms such as high fever, severe cough, or increased congestion are persistent or worsening despite home care measures, contact your healthcare provider for further evaluation and guidance.
  3. Emergency warning signs: Pay attention to emergency warning signs. Bluish lips or face, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or severe or persistent symptoms may indicate a more severe respiratory illness. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these emergency warning signs, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.
  4. Underlying health conditions: If you have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or respiratory conditions, you should be vigilant and ask your healthcare provider for guidance on when to seek medical attention if you develop symptoms of COVID-19, RSV, or the flu.
  5. Personal health concerns: If you have any personal health concerns or questions about your symptoms, it's always best to get medical advice. A doctor can assess your situation and provide recommendations based on your health history and current condition.

Remember, it's always better to err on the side of caution and seek medical advice if you have concerns about your health. Your healthcare provider can provide the best guidance on when to seek additional medical attention based on your circumstances.

Preventing Future Illness: Tips for Protecting Yourself From Respiratory Infections

Preventing the spread of COVID-19, RSV, and the flu involves individual and collective measures. Here are some effective prevention measures:


Get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu when vaccines are available. Vaccines are the most effective way to protect yourself and those around you from these viruses. The flu vaccine is updated annually based on the dominant strain, and helps provide robust protection from flu complications. 

Our FAQ section has details on approved COVID-19 vaccines, vaccination schedules, and where to get vaccinated. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends RSV immunizations to protect those at higher risk, including:

  • Infants 
  • Toddlers
  • Adults over 60
  • Pregnant individuals 
  • High-risk groups of children 

Check the CDC website for more information on who can receive the RSV vaccine. 

Hand Hygiene 

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.

Wear a Mask 

Wearing a mask is an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. Make sure the mask covers your nose and mouth and fits snugly against the sides of your face. 

Visit the CDC website for details on how to access free high-quality masks

Social Distancing 

Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Stay at least six feet away from others in public settings.

Stay Home When You Are Sick 

If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, RSV, or the flu, stay home and avoid contact with others to prevent the spread of the virus.

Cover Your Mouth and Nose 

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow.

Clean and Disinfect 

Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, and phones, using a household disinfectant.

Improve Ventilation 

Increase ventilation by opening windows or using air filters to help reduce the concentration of respiratory droplets in the air.

Following these preventive measures can help protect yourself and those around you from COVID-19, RSV, and the flu. Read our blog post about COVID-19 prevention tips to learn more. 


COVID-19 is a serious illness that has significantly impacted our lives, but it's not the only virus we need to be aware of. By knowing the signs and symptoms of other respiratory illnesses, seeking medical care when necessary, and taking steps to prevent getting sick in the future, you can help protect yourself and those around you during peak flu season and year-round.


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