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Expert advice for respiratory virus season

Last Modified: January 09, 2024

Family Medicine, Safety & Prevention

cold and flu season

This post was written by Michael J. Davis, DO, MPH, Parkview Infectious Diseases.

While the winter months are filled with festivities and spending time with loved ones, they are also a time when colds and viruses can spread. In the infectious disease world, the winter months are synonymous with respiratory virus season. Respiratory viruses are the last thing anyone wants to spend time contemplating after going through the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, they unfortunately are a constant threat to humans during this time of year.

Types of respiratory viruses and how they spread

Innumerable respiratory viruses circulate from late fall into early spring, including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19, other coronaviruses, human metapneumoviruses, and parainfluenza to name a few.

These viruses are spread through respiratory secretions that we produce when we talk, cough, sneeze and breathe. Larger respiratory droplets can travel as far as six feet while smaller respiratory droplets can be aerosolized and linger in the air.

Consequently, when we congregate at home debating with Uncle Bob who’s going to win the Super Bowl, tasting Aunt Sue’s pies, and helping prevent baby Marie from sharing her whole meal with the dog, it’s hard to avoid breathing in these virus-laden respiratory droplets. Therefore, while our holiday parties serve as a time to share special moments, they also serve as incubator events where we ultimately share each other’s viruses.

Common respiratory virus symptoms and treatment options

Respiratory viruses can lead to a wide spectrum of symptoms of varying severity. Most healthy adults will develop typical symptoms of low-grade fever, cough, muscle aches and generalized fatigue. These symptoms will typically linger for approximately one week before you start to slowly feel better. 

Most respiratory viruses do not have a specific treatment (exceptions being COVID-19 and influenza). However, while there are no specific treatments for many respiratory viruses, that doesn’t mean you have to continue with your day feeling miserable. Generally, I recommend people stay well hydrated and active (as tolerated) to help their immune system circulate and combat the virus. There are also many different over-the-counter medications to help with symptoms of cough, runny nose, muscle aches, and sinus pressure that your provider can recommend. 

When to call your provider

While most people will slowly recover from a viral infection on their own, some people may have worsening symptoms that require further evaluation with a provider. If after a week of symptoms, you develop a worsening fever, cough and shortness of breath, it is possible you may have developed a bacterial infection. Bacterial lung infections can be a serious consequence of viral infections that are typically evaluated by your doctor with blood work and a chest x-ray.

Typical bacterial pneumonias that we see are from bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenzae, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Chlamydophila pneumoniae and Legionella species. Bacterial pneumonia can generally be treated with 5-7 days of antibiotics; however, it may take some additional time for the inflammation and symptoms to resolve.

Protect yourself through vaccinations

There are many strategies to prevent and diminish the severity of infections during respiratory virus season. One of the most important ways to prevent developing severe symptoms from respiratory viruses is through vaccination. Three respiratory viruses generally cause more severe disease that we monitor community levels closely: Influenza, COVID-19 and RSV. 

Influenza vaccination has been around for some time now and requires annual vaccination due to differing viral strains circulating each year. The COVID-19 vaccine has been re-vamped to better protect against the circulating XBB lineage of the Omicron variant. If you haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 since September 2023, then it may be worth asking your doctor about receiving an updated vaccine. The RSV vaccine is the new kid on the block, recently approved by the FDA. Currently, the RSV vaccine is being reserved for infants, toddlers and adults over age 60. 

With these three viruses having the ability to wreak havoc on our lungs, it’s a blessing to have vaccines available to help prevent the development of severe disease. With any medical intervention, it’s always important to discuss with your doctor what makes sense for you. 

Other ways to stay healthy this winter

In addition to vaccination to prevent severe disease, there are everyday habits that can help decrease the risk of acquiring infection. Given that we inevitably touch our faces frequently throughout the day with contaminated hands, it’s a good idea to clean your hands frequently, especially if you have been touching common-use objects. You can use soap and water or hand sanitizer.

Another measure that can be taken is wearing a mask when in more crowded areas to try to decrease the amount of respiratory secretions that you are sharing with others as well as decrease the amount of other respiratory secretions that you are inhaling.

These basic behaviors can make quite a difference in making it through the respiratory virus season a little healthier.

I hope everyone has a happy, healthy, and infection-free 2024. However, if you do develop an infection this year, your Parkview care team is here to help.


Additional resources

RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) | CDC

Influenza (Flu) | CDC

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) | CDC

When and How to Wash Your Hands | Handwashing | CDC




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