Cases of respiratory illnesses — including flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus — are all rising after the winter holidays.
"We do expect cases are going to rise and hospitalizations are going to rise well into the end of January to early February," Dr. Vin Gupta, pulmonologist and TODAY medical contributor, told NBC's Blayne Alexander during a Jan. 2, 2024, segment on the TODAY show.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are seeing elevated and increasing levels of flu-like illnesses in most areas of the country. And more than 30 states are currently seeing high or very high levels of flu-like illnesses, the CDC says.
What's more, at least 20 children have already died from influenza during the 2023-2024 flu season, according to CDC data.
With flu on the rise and highly infectious coronavirus variants, such as JN.1 and HV.1, spreading widely alongside the usual wintertime respiratory illnesses, it's important to know the signs that your — and your child's — symptoms may be more serious than a run-of-the-mill cold that gets better on its own.
When to take your child to the doctor for a respiratory illness:
Knowing that children get sick frequently, Gupta shared two signs that they need medical attention for what might seem like a mild cold:
- If you hear wheezing.
- If they wake up with a sore throat and fever.
"If you have a very young child, say infant age, and they're having respiratory wheezing — you can actually hear them audibly wheezing — get them immediately seen," Gupta said. Wheezing can be a symptom of RSV, TODAY.com explained previously, and any breathing difficulties need to be checked out by a doctor or pediatrician.
Additionally, if your child (of any age) wakes up with a sore throat and fever but not is not coughing, you should get them medical attention, Gupta explained. This set of symptoms can be a sign of strep throat, he said, which is typically treated with antibiotics.
Other symptoms of strep throat include pain when swallowing, red or swollen tonsils, body aches and headaches, according to Mayo Clinic. Among children younger than 3, however, strep throat may manifest as only a fever with congestion or a runny nose.
Other ways to protect yourself — and your family right now
There are still ways to protect yourself and your family amid the current rise in seasonal illnesses.
- Consider wearing a mask, especially in high-risk situations, such as during travel or while attending crowded events. Some counties and hospital systems are already reinstating mask requirements. For instance, Los Angeles County reintroduced mask mandates for health care settings in late December 2023.
- Get tested if you're feeling sick. For example, the flu and COVID-19 are treated differently, so it's important to know which illness you're dealing with.
- Get the updated COVID-19 shot and flu vaccine if you haven't already. This is also the first year that RSV are vaccines available for pregnant people and older adults. It’s not too late to get these vaccines, experts say.
- Use proper hand hygiene, whether that's regularly washing your hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer on the go.
Sticking to these tried and true strategies will help keep you, your family and your community safe as seasonal respiratory illnesses circulate. And, if you or someone in your household does get sick, know the signs that their illness might be more serious than you think.