Is dry cough COVID, RSV or flu? Here are the most common symptoms


If it feels like everyone you know is getting sick, that’s because they are. The Bay Area is getting pummeled with a triple threat of viruses.

COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus cases are surging across the region and the nation, making it harder than ever to determine what is causing your dry cough or runny nose. The infections cause similar symptoms, but it’s important to know how to tell them apart to get proper treatment and avoid spreading them to others.

“Distinguishing COVID from flu can be difficult because the symptoms overlap so much,” said Dr. Brooke Bozick, an expert on respiratory diseases with the National Institutes of Health.

COVID-19 shares several common symptoms with the flu — including fever, dry cough, body aches and fatigue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many familiar indicators of a coronavirus infection have evolved as newer variants emerge and immunity from vaccination or prior infection increases.

“As our bodies become more experienced with COVID, the symptoms are milder overall,” said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF.

A runny nose, headache or sore throat could now precede a positive coronavirus test result with one of the many offshoots of omicron, while the flu usually begins with a cough. Signs of a common cold can include sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes.

Some COVID indicators reported during earlier phases of the pandemic, such as loss of taste and smell, are less common now.

People infected with the flu typically develop symptoms about one to four days after infection. COVID-19 symptoms develop three to four days after being infected, but some people can show signs as early as two days or as late as 14 days after infection.

RSV, which mainly affects children and seniors, typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms — like runny nose, coughing or wheezing — from which most people will recover quickly. In infants under 6 months old, the only indicators of RSV might be irritability, decreased activity and appetite and pauses in breathing, per the CDC.

But RSV can also lead to more severe infections like bronchiolitis or pneumonia, with such outcomes more likely among the youngest and oldest patients.

Testing is recommended to diagnose the specific virus, but here are some common symptoms to help you determine what’s making you sick.

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