During most winters, hospitals see an uptick in patients with respiratory infections. However, 2023 has turned out to be much worse than usual. In fact, experts are referring to our current situation as the “Tripledemic,” referring to the concurrently high rates of RSV, COVID-19, and Influenza, which all cause cold or flu-like respiratory illnesses and even death.
We are familiar with COVID-19 overwhelming hospitals. Fortunately, current levels of hospitalization for COVID are significantly lower than during the previous Alpha, Delta, and Omicron waves of COVID. However, the lower levels of COVID are being counterbalanced with an increase in other viral illnesses, filling and overwhelming hospitals again this winter. And it doesn’t stop with these three viruses. Here in the Bryan/College Station area, we are seeing high rates of Norovirus (which causes intestinal illness), Adenovirus (which causes cold or flu-like illness and pink eye), and others.
With our healthcare system still on its heels trying to recover from the devastation wrought by three years of COVID, there simply isn’t adequate capacity to accommodate so many seriously ill patients.
Distinguishing between the three infections
Distinguishing between the many respiratory infections is not easy, especially without testing, but can be important because we have antiviral (antibiotics for viruses) medications for either Influenza (the flu) or COVID. Frustratingly, we don’t have effective antivirals for the vast majority of other viruses that cause similar infections.
To help distinguish between the three infections here are some characteristics of each.
RSV typically affects infants and young children and usually results in copious runny noses, sneezing, and coughing. Children with RSV who are younger than 3 months are at particular risk and should be seen by a doctor. Here are symptoms to watch out for:
- Decreased Appetite
Covid can infect anyone, but it typically affects adults more severely — especially those 65 and older. COVID can be treated with medications such as Paxlovid or Lageviro but must be started within the first 2-3 days of symptom onset. Watch for the following symptoms:
- Muscle aches and fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of taste or smell
- Fever and/or chills
- Nasal congestion
Influenza can range from mild or severe depending on the person and affects people of all ages. Again, this infection is much more serious for the elderly. Flu can be treated with medications such as Tamiflu or Xofluza but must be started within the first 2-3 days of symptom onset. Those with the flu may have these symptoms:
- Fever and/or chills
- Muscle aches
- Limited nasal symptoms compared to “the common cold”
Staying Well During the Tripledemic
Something that became abundantly clear during the COVID pandemic is that we can do a great deal to avoid getting sick individually and help our communities weather the Tripledemic. For example, following the COVID prevention recommendations essentially completely eliminated the flu, which is usually responsible for about 50,000 deaths per year. So please remember to do the following to prevent a tripledemic:
- Get Vaccinated – There are vaccines for both influenza and COVID that are effective and safe. This is the best way to prevent illness and reduce the impact of a tripledemic. Furthermore, both of these vaccines have been associated with significantly better health for those who receive them in the long term.
- Wear a mask – While nobody enjoys wearing a mask, there is no longer any question about their efficacy. A multitude of studies in many scenarios has proven them to be effective at preventing the spread of COVID and other respiratory viruses. Simply stated, masks save lives. So, wear a mask if you will be in large groups, or especially if you are feeling any symptoms that might indicate you are becoming sick or if you have recently been sick.
- Keep your nose warm – this may sound like folklore, but early evidence indicates that a cold nose has a reduced ability to resist infection from viruses. This probably partially explains why colds are called colds! And, our Moms were probably right that running around in the cold air made it more likely we would catch a cold. This is another good reason to wear a mask or a scarf and to avoid prolonged periods out in the cold.
- Wash your hands – Keep germs off of your hands by washing them with soap and water on a regular basis. Sanitizer is a great addition to keeping your hands clean but is not a substitute for using soup and water.
- Cough and sneeze into upper shirt sleeve – If you are coughing or sneezing, please do not spend time around others. But, if you must be around others, wear a mask, or at the least, use your hands or sleeve to block a cough or sneeze is better than nothing.
- Don’t touch your face – Touching your face — even with clean hands — can increase your risk for infection.
- Social distance and stay home when sick – Remember, every person who gets ill or dies from one of these viruses caught it from someone else. Don’t be the person who infects someone else. At the minimum, it is inconsiderate. At worst, your germs can be deadly. When out in public, do your best to maintain social distancing to be safer from getting sick. If you do get sick, stay home in order to not infect others.
- Use a sinus wash – developing evidence indicates that people who use a nasal wash daily have a reduced likelihood of developing a respiratory illness, have mild respiratory illnesses, and are less likely to be hospitalized or die.
- Avoid “supplements” – Unfortunately, numerous studies have failed to demonstrate any significant benefit from using vitamin C, Zinc, or other supplements that purport to prevent colds/flu or to help you recover faster.