Coronavirus and RSV

Coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are two kinds of respiratory illnesses that have some similar symptoms. So far, the new coronavirus appears to be more dangerous for adults, especially older ones. RSV is riskier for young children, but it can also be serious for older people and those who have other health problems.

Coronavirus vs. RSV

Coronaviruses are a group of common viruses that infect the respiratory tract. The newest one is the virus that causes COVID-19.

Though COVID-19 can affect children, adults make up most of the cases diagnosed so far. Adults are also more likely to have serious symptoms from the coronavirus, especially if they're over 65 or have a condition like diabetes, lung disease, or heart disease.

RSV can also affect people of ages, but it's especially common in infants and young children. By age 2, nearly every child will have been infected. Most cases are mild. But some children are more likely to get seriously ill, including:

  • Infants 6 months or younger
  • Babies who were born early
  • Children under 2 with chronic lung or heart disease
  • Children with a weak immune system
  • Children who have trouble swallowing

Each year, RSV sends more than 57,000 children to the hospital.

When adults and older children catch RSV, they usually have only minor symptoms that are similar to a cold. RSV can also be serious for some, though, including:

  • People over 65
  • Those with a weakened immune system
  • Those with heart or lung diseases

Some 177,000 older adults are hospitalized for RSV each year in the United States, and 14,000 of them die.

Both illnesses spread the same way: Someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, sending droplets containing the virus into the air. 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.

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Comparing Symptoms

Both COVID-19 and RSV can cause these symptoms:

Children with coronavirus often have mild symptoms. Some have no symptoms at all. Adults with COVID-19 often also notice shortness of breath. Their symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.

Along with cold-like symptoms, RSV causes:

RSV can also lead to more serious problems like:

  • Bronchiolitis, which causes swelling in the small air sacs in the lungs
  • Pneumonia, a lung infection

Is Your Child at Risk for COVID-19?

The new coronavirus is very contagious. Kids face the same risk of catching it as adults, although the disease is usually milder in children. They can also spread it to others.

We don't know yet whether some children are more likely to have a serious illness from this coronavirus. We do know that adults are more likely to get seriously sick from COVID-19 if they're over 65 or have:

  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Diabetes
  • A weak immune system

But even young adults are at risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19. One study found that one-fifth of those ages 25-40 were sick enough to go to a hospital.

How to Stay Healthy

The best way to prevent yourself and your children from catching coronavirus or RSV is to stay away from anyone who might be sick.

Here are a few other prevention tips that work well for both illnesses:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time, especially after you use the bathroom and before you eat. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren't available.
  • Keep your hands away from your mouth, nose, and eyes. For kids, that means no thumb-sucking or nose-picking.
  • Ask everyone in the house to cough and sneeze into their elbow or a tissue, not their hand.
  • Clean and disinfect things that are often touched, like doorknobs, countertops, and toys.
  • Don't let kids share personal items like utensils or cups with anyone.

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When to Get Medical Care

Most kids with coronavirus have a mild case and get better on their own. While they're sick, keep them at home and away from everyone else in the house who's healthy. Do the same for yourself if you have symptoms of COVID-19.

Call your doctor's office or local health department for advice if RSV or COVID-19 symptoms get worse for you or your child. Get medical help right away if you notice:

  • Trouble breathing (In babies, the signs include flaring nostrils or the belly sucking in.)
  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion
  • Trouble waking up
  • Blue lips or face
  • Not eating or drinking well
  • A hard time talking or saying sentences

Because RSV can turn serious quickly, call your doctor if your child:

  • Has symptoms like a runny nose, fever, and cough and is less than 6 months old
  • Runs a fever of 100.4 F and is under 6 months old, or has a fever over 104 F at any age
  • Is wheezing or breathing quickly
  • Doesn't eat or drink much
  • Isn't as alert or active as usual
  • Wets fewer than 1 diaper every 8 hours, which could be a sign of dehydration

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on March 30, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Pediatrics: "When It's More Than Just a Cold."

CDC: "Children and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)," "People Who Are at Higher Risk for Severe Illness," "RSV in Infants and Young Children," "RSV Transmission," "Symptoms and Care: RSV Symptoms," "Trends and Surveillance," "What to Do if You Are Sick," "RSV Infection in Older Adults."

Cleveland Clinic: "Childhood Respiratory Infections and Other Illnesses."

Infectious Diseases and Therapy: "Defining the epidemiology and burden of severe respiratory syncytial virus infection among infants and children in Western countries."

KidsHealth.org: "A to Z: Coronavirus."

Nationwide Children’s: "Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)," "What Parents Need to Know About Coronavirus."

The Lancet: "Clinical and epidemiological features of 36 children with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Zhejiang, China: An observational cohort study."

World Health Organization: "Coronavirus," "Q&A on Coronaviruses (COVID-19)."

Family Doctor: "Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)."

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