The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world by surprise: a virus for which we had no immunity, treatment or prevention swept the globe in early 2020 and took with it millions of lives. Vaccines and extensive public safety habits have offered some protection, but evolving coronavirus mutations are still spreading at a dangerous pace, and the annual flu season has arrived.

Compounding those concerns is that the season of another common but less known virus, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), started earlier than usual, and an explosion in cases among children. We are encountering an escalating hospitalization rate of children and the most vulnerable.

“RSV is a very common virus, highly contagious, and almost everyone has caught it at some point,” said Graham Tse, M.D., a pediatric intensivist and chief medical officer of MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach. “Most have mild symptoms. It’s like a cold: you have it and get over it,” Dr. Tse said. “But most at risk for severe illness are the very young and the very old: infants, the immunocompromised, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions. They can end up in the ICU, some need ventilators, and some die.”

The RSV season usually starts in December and peaks the following March; influenza follows a similar pattern. But both this virus and the flu were detected earlier than usual, and with more individuals infected than normal.

“We don’t know yet if this means we will have longer RSV and flu seasons,” Dr. Tse said. “We do know that as COVID-19 variants are still circling, we could have a ‘tripledemic’ this year.”

“It is possible to contract two viruses at the same time, or all three,” he said. “People don’t have a feeling for what it would be like to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, or the flu and RSV. We don’t know how multiple infections will affect the higher-risk individuals.”

People who get sick might not know which infection they have.

“Symptoms of a cold, flu, RSV and COVID-19 look exactly the same,” Dr. Tse said. “No one can really tell from symptoms alone.”

At-home and testing sites can detect COVID-19 antigens. Health providers can order tests to determine the presence of the flu or RSV. But there is no cure yet for any of these viruses.

“There are limited treatments for the flu and COVID-19, and no specific treatment for RSV,” Dr. Tse said. “Most interventions are limited to symptomatic care. Keeping well hydrated is also important.”

Fortunately, there are vaccines available for COVID-19 and the flu. Both these vaccines are recommended to prevent severe illness and death by boosting the body’s natural immune system to produce antibodies, he said.

But there is more you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your friends.

“Remember what we did for COVID-19,” Dr. Tse said. “It’s common sense. Masking, social distancing, hand-washing — they all make a difference.”

If you are ill, don’t go to work, don’t go to family functions or see a group of friends. You are exposing those around you to a risk of infection.

“Maybe in the past when you got sick, you’d still go in and tough it out,” Dr. Tse said. “Don’t do that. This year is different.”

Learn more about RSV by reading our Frequently Asked Questions