How Do You Know If You Have RSV or a Cold? Symptoms in Children & Adults

Madeline Hlobik
Madeline Hlobik22 Sep 2021

Deciphering whether you have a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or common cold can be difficult because the symptoms present within both are very similar. Although the surest way to know whether you have RSV or a cold is to visit a medical professional, other signs that may indicate RSV over a cold include difficulty breathing, unusual behaviors, and wheezing. 

With Mira, individuals can receive access to urgent care visits, at which healthcare providers can diagnose either RSV or a common cold. Additionally, you can receive up to 80% off on various prescriptions and lab testings for just $45 per month. 

The Difference Between RSV and the Common Cold

Around 64 million individuals are affected with RSV every year, and about 1 billion individuals within the U.S. alone suffer from a common cold. Ultimately, consulting with a healthcare professional will be the best way to officially determine if you or a loved one has RSV or a cold. 

RSV Symptoms

Common signs of RSV can include all of these previous signs that encapsulate a cold, and also:

  • Fast breathing
  • Unusually upset/inactive
  • Wheezing
  • Flared Nostrils
  • Inability to eat/feed
  • Difficulty to breath

Cold Symptoms

The most identifiable signs of a common cold include:

  •  Fever
  • Cough (wet or dry sounding)
  • Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Runny Nose
  • Decreased Appetite

Due to these symptoms, it is clear that RSV tends to be more severe and can lead to more severe forms of illnesses. Below is a table that may help detect whether you or your dependent is facing RSV or a cold.

The Most Common Differentiating Symptoms in RSV and a Cold

Sore Throat X
Watery Eyes X
Unusual BehaviorsX 
Difficulty BreathingX 
Sneezing X
Stuffy Nose X

Sources: https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions---pediatrics/r/respiratory-syncytial-virus-rsv-in-children.html , https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/colds.html

What RSV is

RSV is a very common respiratory virus that typically causes mild symptoms parallel to a common cold. Fortunately, most individuals can recover from RSV within a week or two. However, in some cases, specifically for infants and older adults, RSV can become severe. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways present within the lungs, and pneumonia, an infection in the lungs, for children under the age of one. 

RSV in Infants

By the age of two, all infants will have experienced some form of RSV. Because the peripheral airways of infants are much narrower than those of adults, they are more susceptible to inflammatory narrowing. Thus, it is imperative to keep tabs on potential signs of RSV in infants.

Unlike adults, infants will most likely show symptoms that indicate RSV. These symptoms include decreased appetite, decreased activity, and apnea (fast breathing). Additionally, your infant may be showing unusual behaviors such as declining breastfeeding or crying more frequently. To help keep your infant healthy, if you may be suspecting they are beginning to feel ill, make sure to wash your hands, keep your hands off of your and their face, disinfect surfaces and cover your cough and sneezes.

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RSV in Older Adults

Older adults, specifically those above the age of 65, can be more susceptible to RSV due to a weakened immune system as we age. Some early symptoms of RSV within older adults include a cough that may sound like a wheeze, a decrease in appetite, and a runny nose. 

How It is Transmitted

Like a cold or the flu, RSV can spread when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, as you can get droplets into your eyes, nose, or mouth. Additionally, though, RSV can be spread via touching a surface that has the virus on it or having direct contact, such as kissing, with an individual who has the virus. RSV can live for several hours on hard surfaces, but it can only survive on softer surfaces such as hands for shorter periods.  

Individuals infected with RSV will be contagious for anywhere between three to eight days. However, there are particular circumstances where infants or other individuals with weakened immune systems can spread the virus for up to four weeks even if they no longer show symptoms. 

What the Common Cold Is

The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat, also known as your upper respiratory tract. Various viruses can cause a cold, and for this reason, healthy adults will even experience two to three colds per year. This condition is generally harmless, and symptoms will usually resolve themselves within two weeks.

Individuals at Risk

All individuals are at risk of and have a high chance of contracting a common cold. Because of their weakened immune systems, young children are more at risk than adults of contracting a cold. The average child will suffer from six to ten colds per year, whereas adults will suffer from only two to four colds.

dHow it is Transmitted

Like RSV, a cold is spread via air droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected individual. Additionally, they can be spread via touching a surface, such as a doorknob that has the virus lingering on it. 

RSV and Common Cold Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Understanding the ins and outs of common cold and RSV can be complex. Through this list of commonly asked questions and answers, we hope you can gain more clarity on how to tackle whatever illness you or a loved one may be facing.

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How can you treat RSV and a cold?

Typically, doctors do not prescribe medication to treat RSV because it is a virus, and your body will most likely fight it off on its own. Some steps you can take at home to beat RSV include drinking plenty of fluids, trying saline drops, utilizing over-the-counter pain relievers, and creating moist air to breathe.

Similarly, the common cold is not usually treated with prescription medication. To fight off a cold, your body will need rest and plenty of fluids. Additionally, you can sip warm liquids, add moisture to the air, and combat stuffiness.

How is RSV diagnosed?

Your doctor may be able to suspect RSV based on certain findings from a physical exam. However, to confirm RSV, your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope to check for wheezing or other abnormal sounds. Lab testings and imaging typically are not required, but they can help check for RSV complications. 

When are the most common times of the year to contract RSV or a cold?

Another factor that makes it difficult to decide whether it is RSV or a cold is that both RSV and colds tend to occur at similar times of the year. There is an increased incidence of colds during flu season or from late August/early September until March or April. Similarly, RSV incidences tend to rise between November and April. 

How can you prevent RSV and a cold?

You can prevent RSV and cold in very similar and easy ways, such as washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face. In addition, you can combat  RSV and colds via regularly disinfect hard surfaces and avoiding smoking and secondhand smoking. 

Bottom Line

RSV and the common cold have very similar symptoms, making it complicated when trying to understand how severe your or a loved one’s condition may be. When trying to determine whether it is RSV or a common cold,  it is important to keep in mind your age, whether or not you are at risk, and if your symptoms have progressed to realms that make breathing difficult for you. Ultimately, you will need a medical professional to dictate whether or not it is RSV, but there are subtle differences in the symptoms which can aid in this decision-making. 

If you are unsure whether it is RSV or a common cold, you can sign up for Mira today and receive access to urgent care visits for just $45 per month. With this low cost, you can obtain lab testings and up to 80% off on over 1,000 unique prescriptions.

Madeline Hlobik

Madeline is a Senior at UCLA majoring in Human Biology & Society with a minor in Spanish. She's currently a Healthcare Research Analyst at Mira, writing content for the blog to help the public better understand certain medical issues, technologies, testings, and the importance of healthcare.