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What You Should Know About the “Tripledemic”

November 20, 2023

Primary Care Wellness During COVID-19
Women not feeling well

How to reduce your risk of severe illness

Again this year, some medical experts warn of a potential tripledemic — an increase in flu, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and COVID-19 all at once.

“When these three major respiratory viruses circulate in the community at the same time, the numbers of sick people strain the health care system — local clinics, primary care providers and hospitals,” says Dr. Michelle Jowdy, a board-certified pediatrician at Riverside Family Medicine & Pediatrics Brentwood.

This past summer, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations increased around the country. And now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we can expect to see COVID-19 cases surge again this winter — and every winter going forward — as other respiratory viruses increase, too.

Read on to learn about these “tripledemic” viruses and how to protect yourself and your family.

Understand the tripledemic respiratory viruses

While different virus strains cause flu, RSV and COVID-19, all affect your respiratory system, the organs that help you breathe. Each illness can cause mild or severe symptoms. And all are very contagious.

“These viruses spread easily when respiratory droplets from an infected person land in another person’s mouth, nose or eyes,” says Dr. Jowdy. “They can also spread when someone touches a surface contaminated with respiratory droplets and then touches their face.”

To protect yourself, consider the latest vaccines

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  approved RSV vaccines earlier this year for certain people. So, this will be the first fall and winter virus season where vaccines are available for all three major respiratory viruses — flu, RSV and COVID-19.

“People who are up to date with their vaccinations have a lower risk of severe symptoms, hospitalizations and death,” says Dr. Jowdy. “Vaccinations are especially important for people with chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and heart or lung disease, as they have a higher risk of complications.”

For best protection, the CDC now recommends:

  • Everyone 6 months and older should receive an annual flu vaccine.
  • Everyone 6 months and older should receive the COVID-19 vaccine updated for 2023-2024.
  • Adults 60 and over should receive an RSV vaccine, if advised by your physician.
  • Pregnant women should receive an RSV vaccine during weeks 32 to 36 of pregnancy to protect their babies from severe RSV symptoms. (RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization for infants in the U.S.)
  • Certain infants and toddlers should receive a new RSV immunization containing monoclonal antibodies (laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight viruses). Although it does not activate the immune system the way an infection or vaccine would, these antibodies provide protection similar to a vaccine.

Consult your health care provider to find out whether these vaccines and immunizations are right for you and your loved ones, given your ages and medical history.

Take other steps to reduce tripledemic viruses

You can also reduce your risk of flu, RSV and COVID-19 by taking these steps:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Don’t share cups or eating utensils.
  • If you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (such as doorknobs, light switches and phones).

Know the signs — Flu and COVID-19 symptoms are similar

With either flu or COVID-19, you may experience:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle and body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of taste or smell (more frequent with COVID-19)

While flu symptoms usually hit you suddenly, COVID-19 symptoms may develop gradually. Your provider may test you to confirm a diagnosis.

Know the signs of RSV

RSV symptoms often show up in stages, not all at once. Symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decreased appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

In infants, you may notice irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulty. While many people with RSV recover fully within a week or two, babies and older adults are more likely to develop severe symptoms that require hospital care. RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis (inflammation of small airways in the lung) in children younger than age 1.

If you do get a respiratory virus

Check with your provider about the best way to care for yourself and your loved ones. Over-the-counter medications and home remedies might ease your symptoms. If you get the flu or COVID-19, ask whether you are a good candidate for antiviral medicines. These treatments can shorten the duration of the illness and lessen the severity. Researchers are looking into antiviral drugs to treat RSV, as well.

Riverside vaccines

To learn whether flu, RSV and COVID-19 vaccines are right for you or your family members, please contact your Riverside Health System primary care provider. Schedule an appointment through your MyChart account or call 757-534-5352.

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