RSV and the Common Cold: What’s the Difference?

The winter months mark the peak of the respiratory virus season in the U.S., and seniors aged 65 years or older are particularly vulnerable to infection. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common respiratory virus that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract.

Mild cases of RSV can easily be confused for a common cold and even follow the same treatment as a cold with at-home care and over-the-counter medication. However, a true RSV infection can turn deadly for some seniors. In fact, the CDC estimates that between 60,000-160,000 American seniors (older adults or adults 65 years or older) are hospitalized due to RSV each year and another 6,000 to 10,000 American seniors die every year from the virus.

“RSV mimics the symptoms of the common cold, making it difficult to distinguish between the two,” says Julie Wilkins, physical therapist and Vice President of Programming and Education at EmpowerMe Wellness. “Fortunately, the latest diagnostic testing technologies can provide important insights to make sure seniors get the right treatment at the right time.”

For seniors dealing with cold symptoms, it’s imperative to know what to look for and when to seek professional medical advice.

What Are Common Symptoms of RSV?

RSV spreads when virus droplets from an infected person enter the host’s eyes, nose, or mouth or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their face before washing their hands. Symptoms usually show within 4-6 days of infection. Typical symptoms include:

  • Runny Nose
  • Decrease in Appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing


More severe symptoms include:

  • Respiratory Distress
  • Confusion
  • Extreme Fatigue
  • Inability to Eat or Drink

When to Contact the Primary Care Provider

If you or your loved one has trouble breathing, a fever for more than two days or lips, or fingernails or skin that turn blue, the CDC recommends calling your doctor. PCR and Antigen testing is available for RSV. Residents of senior living communities that offer EmpowerMe Wellness diagnostics services have the option of a quick cheek swab test that tests for RSV, plus other illnesses like COVID-19, Flu and 26 other viruses, with results arriving in 24 hours or less.

Wilkins recommends proactively protecting against both RSV and the common cold. “Practicing good hygiene and using basic infection control principles are some of the best safeguards against disease,” she says. “It’s also important to limit exposure to those that may feel sick and to self-isolate when signs of illness are present.”

As always, washing hands frequently with soap and water is recommended. Caregivers should also practice safe food handling and frequently disinfect surfaces that the senior in their care might come in contact with. If seniors are in highly populated areas or are immunocompromised, face masks should be worn.

"Practicing good hygiene and using basic infection control principles are some of the best safeguards against disease.”

Julie Wilkins

Physical Therapist and Vice President of Programming and Education at EmpowerMe Wellness

At EmpowerMe Wellness, safety is our first priority. Read here for more information on our single-swab respiratory test. In under 24 hours, a single swab tests for over 20 viruses, including RSV. Fast and accurate results mean residents can get the treatment they need as soon as possible.