What’s the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19?

Three respiratory viruses are straining families and hospital systems right now. Here’s advice from infectious-disease experts.

Young boy in bed with cold-like symptoms at home.
(Vera Livchak/Getty Images/Washington Post Illustration)

Cases of covid, flu and RSV are colliding, keeping kids home from school, straining hospital systems and prompting worries about a potential “tripledemic.”

Cases of respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, have surged, the flu season has come early, and covid-19 cases are beginning to rise. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 5.8 percent of outpatient visits now are due to respiratory illnesses whose symptoms include fever plus a cough or sore throat, well above the normal baseline of 2.5 percent.

While most people recover from respiratory illnesses, some people, mostly infants and older adults, can become very ill and require hospital care. How do you tell the difference between the various viruses, and how do you know when to seek medical care?

The Washington Post spoke with four infectious-disease experts to answer some common questions about the outbreak of respiratory illnesses, symptoms and treatments. Here’s what they said.

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