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Common Cold Vs Respiratory Syncytial Virus In Kids: How To Distinguish Between The Two

Common cold and RSV are fairly common in children and have similar characteristics. However, to treat them, you must know their differences

Tenzin Chodon
Written by: Tenzin ChodonUpdated at: Sep 08, 2023 18:20 IST
Common Cold Vs Respiratory Syncytial Virus In Kids: How To Distinguish Between The Two

Onlymyhealth Tamil

Upper respiratory infections are contagious infections that primarily affect the upper part of the respiratory system, which includes the nose, nasal passages, sinuses, throat, and larynx (voice box). These are fairly common among adults and kids and while the cause may differ, symptoms can often be overlapping, leading to misdiagnosis. 

Common cold and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) are two common infections, which cause similar symptoms. Differentiating between the two is crucial due to the potential severity of RSV infections, especially in vulnerable populations like children. Speaking with the OnlyMyHealth team, Dr Preeth Shetty, Consultant Paediatrician, Fortis Hospital, Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru, helps draw similarities and differences between the two. 

Prevalence Of Common Cold And RSV

According to a study published in the Journal Official Publication of The College of Family Physicians of Canada, adults get 4-6 colds per year, while children get 6-8 of them on an average. 

"Because colds occur all year round, the total burden of illness caused by them is greater than the burden caused by seasonal influenza. Colds account for 40% of all time lost from jobs and 30% of all absenteeism from school," the research paper adds. 

Also Read: Childhood Asthma: Expert Explains Causes And Coping Mechanism

On the other hand, RSV affects an estimated 6.4 crore people and causes 1.6 lakh deaths globally each year, says the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, adding that in the United States, nearly all children have been infected with RSV by age two.

Similarities And Differences

Dr Shetty says, “The common cold and RSV are both respiratory infections, which can cause similar symptoms, but there are also some key differences.” Here are a few similarities in their symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Mild congestion

Distinctive Symptoms of RSV include:

  • Wheezing in infants and young children
  • Occurrence of bronchiolitis, which causes inflammation in the small lung airways, leading to breathing difficulties and possible hospitalisation
  • Prevalence during winter and early spring
  • Caused by a single virus
  • Higher severity and X-ray pictures are near normal

Treatment Approach

According to Dr Shetty, treatment for both the common cold and RSV in children and vulnerable groups require supportive care, meaning supplemental oxygen and fluids.

“Treatment of bronchiolitis involves humidified air and nebulisations with levosalbutamol and hypertonic saline nebulisations,” she adds. 

When it comes to a common cold, one may need plenty of rest, pain relievers, saline nasal drops or sprays, which help ease nasal congestion, and throat Lozenges for soothing a sore throat.

Some cases of severe RSV may require inhaled medications to help open airways and reduce inflammation along with antiviral medications. In addition, because RSV is highly contagious, isolation and strict hygiene measures are important to prevent its spread, especially in healthcare settings.

Preventive Measures

There is no sure way to prevent the common cold or RSV, but there are some things you can do to reduce your child's risk of infection, says Dr Shetty. These include:

  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Keeping your child's hands clean
  • Encouraging your child to get plenty of rest
  • Masking regularly


While both the common cold and RSV are respiratory infections that share some common symptoms, they differ in their severity and potential impact on people. The common cold is generally a mild condition, often managed with rest and over-the-counter remedies. On the other hand, RSV can lead to more serious respiratory complications, especially in infants, young children, and older adults, sometimes requiring medical intervention and hospitalisation. Differentiating between these infections, understanding their distinct characteristics, and practising preventive measures are essential for providing appropriate care.