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How to tell if your kid has a cold, the flu, RSV or COVID-19

As a parent, when do I know if my child has contracted the flu, COVID-19, the common cold or RSV? What are the signs and symptoms?
/ Source: TODAY

Our second official pandemic winter is fast approaching and while experts warn that flu season could be brutal this year, the coronavirus still remains a concern for most Americans. Especially for parents of kids too young to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. As temperatures drop and respiratory viruses begin to circulate alongside the coronavirus, parents may worry. Here, doctors address concerns like when do I know if my child has contracted the flu, COVID-19, the common cold or RSV? What are the signs and symptoms and when should I call the doctor?

How will I know if my kid contracts COVID-19?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospitalization rates due to COVID-19 are significantly lower in children than rates in adults with the illness. Children may have many symptoms or could be asymptomatic. Either way, if a child tests positive for COVID-19, they must still be cautious said Dr. Dane Snyder, the chief of primary care pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, as one of the biggest “risk factors is that it could spread to someone else who has much higher risk.”

The CDC stresses that it is still possible for kids to contract a severe case of COVID-19 and become hospitalized. Snyder tells parents to look out for your child’s loss of taste or smell, as that is the biggest difference between the flu and COVID-19. He also warned parents to monitor symptoms, as “there is a unique syndrome with children called MIS that happens typically a few weeks after a child contracts COVID.”

MIS-C, short for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, is a condition that has the potential of causing “very severe illnesses in children later on.” Snyder notes that this condition is one that is unique to COVID-19, and to look out for it as it is not something that doctors and medical experts “see very frequently in other illnesses.”

Dr. Flor Munoz, associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Texas Children’s Hospital, recommends that children get tested if they demonstrate any sort of COVID-19 symptoms. Getting tested is critical “especially because it is difficult to tell the differences between RSV, the flu and COVID-19."

The long-term effects of the coronavirus among children are still being explored. The coronavirus vaccine is not yet available for children under the age of 12, though emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5-11 is expected in the coming days.

The flu and the coronavirus share many symptoms. Below is a list of the hallmark COVID-19 symptoms specifically in children.

Symptoms of COVID-19 in kids:

  • Fever.
  • Loss of taste or smell.
  • Body aches.
  • Multisystem inflammatory syndrome (ongoing fever, stomach pain, bloodshot eyes, diarrhea, dizziness, skin rash, vomiting).
  • Gastrointestinal issues including, though not limited to: vomiting, nausea, diarrhea.

When to call doctor:

If your child has been in close contact with an individual who has tested positive for the virus, it is important to notify their doctor. If your child has tested positive for COVID-19, Snyder recommends that they remain isolated for the entire quarantine period, as specified by the CDC, and “follow health department and CDC guidelines and policies.”

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus, more commonly known as RSV, is a virus that spreads from person to person when the infected individual touches the other individual via hand contact. It is a seasonal virus that typically circulates in the winter.

Like many other viruses, RSV runs its course and goes away on its own in adults. “All of us adults have probably gotten it at some point or another, and it’s just like a cold. We will get over it within a couple of days,” Dr. John Torres, NBC News medical correspondent told TODAY. Despite this, medical experts are especially concerned with the spread of the virus among young children. “For babies who are vulnerable, those less than six months old, premature babies, those with any kind of respiratory or immune system issues it can be serious, even deadly,” Torres added.

Munoz told TODAY that “the problem is that you have young infants being at greater risk, because they are going to be having more problems with lower respiratory tract.”

In other words, babies can be at greater risk when contracting RSV because it is more likely for them to develop bronchiolitis which “is caused by the virus causing inflammation and narrowing of the airways,” Munoz said.

There are no current vaccines to prevent the spread of RSV. Experts say that the most effective ways to prevent any further spread of the virus is to wash hands frequently, disinfect all toys and avoid crowds to the best of your ability. Munoz also recommends parents prevent other adults from kissing their children (but hugs are OK!).

“The best way to prevent getting RSV is really to do what you normally would do to prevent other respiratory viruses, which is hand-washing,'' said Munoz.

Symptoms of RSV:

RSV shares many of the same symptoms as the common cold and the flu: sniffles, a cough and a low-grade fever are common. Because of this, make sure to watch for these additional symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or breathing rapidly.
  • Wheezing.
  • Breathing retractions.
  • Blue or gray skin coloring.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Fever.

Young infants and young children may show different signs of RSV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that young infants can get fatigued, show little interest in activity, become more irritable and may show signs of difficulty breathing. Older children may also experience similar issues, although experts say that it is common for their lips to turn blue if they have had extensive breathing troubles. If any of these symptoms occur, take your child to the emergency room immediately.

When to call a doctor:

If you notice that your child has any skin discoloration or has shown any kind of respiratory troubles including, though not limited to, difficulty breathing or wheezing, Torres asks that you notify a doctor right away, as severe cases of RSV can further develop into bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

If your child has a mild case, it is important to remain hydrated, clear any nasal congestion and continue monitoring for more severe symptoms.

What to know about the common cold:

When children get sick, Snyder said that most of the time, the culprit is the common cold.

“Most likely, common colds caused by non-COVID-19 viruses are still the most common thing that we see,” he said. During this time of the year, experts say that it is not unusual for kids to contract a cold from school, large crowds or simply from being run down. “Colds are one of the more frequent things that we see children for in both primary care offices and urgent care emergency departments,” said Snyder.

Once children contract a cold, it has no definite timeline of when it will go away, though Snyder said that they can linger for around three to five days, and more severe symptoms like a cough could persist for another few weeks.

There is no cure or specific way to treat the common cold in children. Experts say colds are “extremely common the first few years of life,” and that “the average child can have six to eight colds over the course of a year.”

Symptoms of the common cold:

  • Nasal congestion.
  • Coughing.
  • Sore throat.
  • Mild or low-grade fever.
  • Body aches, including headache.
  • Fatigue.
  • Loss of appetite.

Snyder warns parents to monitor children closely to see if symptoms progress.

When to call a doctor:

If you start to notice that a more severe symptom continues to persist, such as difficulty breathing, the inability to stay hydrated or urinating less frequently, Snyder recommends contacting your primary care provider immediately.

What will the 2021-2022 flu season be like?

Influenza, or the flu, is a common virus that affects the nasal passages, the throat and sometimes the lungs. It is a contagious respiratory illness which mainly spreads when infected individuals sneeze, cough or talk. It is unlikely, but the flu can also be transmitted via surfaces, if an infected person touches something and then another person touches it and proceeds to touch their eyes, nose or mouth.

Flu season, which could start as early as mid-November and go as late as March, is expected to look a little different this year, mixed with the ongoing COVID-19 delta variant. In order to protect your children, experts stress that the most effective tool is to have your child get the influenza vaccine. Snyder stressed to parents that, “flu shots are safe for all children,” over six months old.

If your child contracts the flu, Munoz recommends calling a primary care physician as “there are many different types of antiviral medicines that pertain specifically to the flu.”

Symptoms of the flu:

Flu symptoms vary from person to person, but the most common signs include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Sore throat.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Fatigue.
  • Body aches.
  • Diarrhea.

Munoz said to be wary of further complications, as the flu “can certainly lead to secondary infections like pneumonia.”

When to call a doctor:

Similar to the common cold, if your child’s symptoms continue to persist over the specified five-day mark, Snyder recommends that you contact your doctor. Be sure to watch if “they aren't able to take fluids, or if they're having difficulty breathing,” Snyder noted. He reminded parents that the younger the child, the greater need there is to contact your primary care provider.

Munoz stressed that parents should feel comfortable calling physicians anytime they have concerns or when something does not feel right, especially because the flu is “very, very contagious.”