What is the Difference Between RSV and the Common Cold?

A woman sitting and coughing under a blanket.In the cold weather seasons, illnesses such as the common cold and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) often run rampant, infecting millions of people each year. Both share similar symptoms, which can make it difficult to tell them apart.

Because RSV and the common cold are also extremely common, it is very likely that the average person will develop one or both of them at some point in a given year. Additionally, RSV and the common cold are more likely to develop in:

  • Infants and young children
  • Adults over the age of 70
  • People with weakened or compromised immune systems
  • People who are frequently in spaces with many other people, such as a college dorm, gym, shared workspace, or public transportation

While it can be difficult to differentiate between the two, one important distinction to keep in mind is that, unlike RSV, which refers to a single type of viral illness, the term “common cold” can refer to any one of hundreds of different viruses, all of which cause similar symptoms. These symptoms occur in three stages, in which they begin to appear, worsen to their peak intensity, and finally start to improve. They typically include:

  • A sore throat (usually the first symptom to appear)
  • A runny nose
  • Frequent coughing
  • Aches throughout your body
  • In some cases, a fever

A person with RSV will also usually experience these same symptoms. However, someone who develops RSV is more likely to have a fever and may experience more wheezing than someone with a cold. It is also more likely to cause someone to lose their appetite.

It is important to note symptoms of both the common cold and RSV, as they can develop into more serious illnesses for certain groups of people. In the case of a cold, this is more likely to occur in people with weakened immune systems or a respiratory condition, such as asthma. For RSV, this risk is greater for infants, older adults, and people with heart and neuromuscular conditions.

Both RSV and the common cold usually don’t require much treatment aside from rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications to help reduce symptoms. However, if your symptoms are severe or last longer than 10 days and do not improve, you can schedule an appointment with a doctor at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center’s Ambulatory Care Center by calling (718) 206-7001.

All content of this newsletter is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this newsletter. PROMPTLY CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN OR CALL 911 IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY.