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RSV vs. colds: What’s the difference?

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RSVCommon coldSimilarities and differences TreatmentSummary
The common cold and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are both respiratory infections that cause similar symptoms. Knowing their differences is key in seeking care and treatment.
Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Written by Suan Pineda
Updated on

Colds and RSV are both common infections that affect your respiratory system (the system that helps you breathe, like your lungs), but they’re caused by different viruses. 

Their symptoms are similar and are often confused with one another. But knowing whether it’s a common cold or RSV is key in treating the infection in cases where the infection becomes serious.

Knowing more about the key differences between them can help you seek the treatment you need to get back to your usual self.

What is RSV? 

A person taking a nap on a sofa. They may have RSV or a cold.

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. This is the virus that causes a disease of the same name. RSV affects both adults and children. It’s more common in young children, and most children catch RSV at least once before they turn 2 years old.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 58,000–80,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized each year for RSV. In fact, RSV is the most common cause of hospitalization in children younger than 1 year old.

As for adults, RSV affects about 5% of all adults in the United States, and 60,000–160,000 of those people are hospitalized because of the infection.

Some symptoms of RSV include:

  • coughing
  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • wheezing
  • lack of appetite

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What is a cold? 

Adults in the United States might get an average of two to four colds in a year, according to the American Lung Association. 

The common cold can be caused by a variety of viruses — in fact, there are more than 200 viruses that can cause a cold. Roughly, 10%–40% of colds are caused by the rhinovirus.

Symptoms of the common cold include:

  • runny nose
  • congestion
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • scratchy and sore throat

Similarities and differences 

So, how can you tell RSV from the common cold? After all, both are viral infections that are transmitted from person to person. And their symptoms are very similar. 

But RSV is different from the common cold. Some differences include:

  • Cause: RSV is caused by the respiratory syncytial virus, while the common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses (the rhinovirus being one of the most common).
  • Symptoms: Although the majority of the symptoms of RSV and the cold are similar, people with RSV may experience higher fever, wheezing, and reduced appetite. Also, people with a cold can get body aches, while this is more rare in people with RSV. Symptoms of RSV in babies younger than 6 months can include irritability, eating or drinking less, and apnea.
  • Complications: RSV is more likely to lead to more severe infections like pneumonia and bronchiolitis. 
  • Risk factors: RSV tends to be more dangerous for young children and people older than 50 years as the infection can lead to complications. People with a weakened immune system are also more likely to contract RSV or the virus that causes the common cold like the rhinovirus.
  • Immunization: While there’s no vaccine to prevent the common cold, there’s immunization for RSV, such as a single-dose monoclonal antibody for infants who are at a high risk of developing severe RSV. The CDC also recommends adults older than 60 years to get the RSV vaccine. 


Treatment for both RSV and the common cold is very similar, as mild cases can be treated at home. At-home remedies to help manage the common cold and RSV include:

  • drinking lots of fluids
  • taking over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), to manage symptoms like congestion, sore throat, and fever
  • getting quality rest
  • avoiding caffeine 

If RSV becomes serious and requires hospitalization, healthcare professionals may prescribe or recommend:

  • oxygen
  • intravenous (IV) fluids (fluids given through a vein)
  • breathing machines
  • tube feeding
  • mucus suction

You or a loved one may require hospitalization for RSV when experiencing:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • high fever
  • wheezing
  • worsening cough

There are ways to reduce the risk of contracting the cold or RSV or passing the virus to other people. They include:

  • washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds 
  • avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • avoiding touching your eyes, face, nose, and mouth with your hands
  • frequently cleaning surfaces like tables, doorknobs, phones, and toys
  • covering your mouth or nose when you cough, talk, or sneeze
  • staying home when you’re sick

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The common cold and RSV are viral infections that share very similar symptoms, such as coughing, a runny nose, and sneezing.

However, there are key differences between the two illnesses, such as the viruses that cause them, as well as certain symptoms like reduced appetite and wheezing.

Treatments for both conditions are similar and include OTC medications to manage symptoms, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting a lot of rest. However, RSV can lead to complications that may require hospitalization.

If you or a loved one experience shortness of breath, high fever, worsening cough, and wheezing, talk with a healthcare professional right away to get a confirmed diagnosis and to determine the treatment that works best for you.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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