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Respiratory Illnesses: Symptoms, Treatment, and Vaccines

Man with blanket, cup of tea, and thermometer

Respiratory illnesses, like the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19, and common colds can spread in communities. These illnesses are most common during the fall and winter. Many of these illnesses have similar symptoms: runny nose, cough, sore throat, fever, and more. This page is meant to answer questions about how to prevent and manage symptoms associated with these illnesses.

Symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

Common respiratory illness symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain or body aches

If you have the symptoms listed above, you can take a COVID-19 test at home. If you test negative, you may have another respiratory illness. Generally, it is not necessary to test for the flu or RSV, especially if symptoms are mild and you are not at higher risk of getting very sick from these illnesses.

Mild symptoms: Stay home

Mild symptoms include a temperature below 100 degrees (below 102.4 degrees for children older than three months), aches and pains, or a mild cough. Rest, drink plenty of fluids, and monitor your symptoms. Hopefully, you will start to feel better in a few days.

Moderate symptoms: Call your Primary Care Office

If you have moderate symptoms like a fever higher than 100.4 degrees, significant coughing, or shortness of breath, contact your primary care provider’s office.

For children ages 3 months and older who are not immunocompromised, a high fever is greater than 102.4 degrees. If your child has a fever, significant coughing, or shortness of breath, you also should call their primary care provider’s office. You should also call if they are sleepier, if they have not gone to the bathroom in more than 10 hours (if 3 years or older) or more than 8 hours (if younger than 3 years old). Your child’s doctor can recommend next steps.

If you do not have a primary care provider or you have symptoms that need immediate attention, try our urgent care options:

  • Schedule an appointment with Mass General Brigham Virtual Urgent Care.     
    Mass General Brigham offers convenient, high-quality virtual urgent care services to those located in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. If you have concerns about COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses, you can virtually and securely connect to a provider. Please note: Virtual Urgent Care is only for patients ages 3 and older.
  • Visit one of our in-person Urgent Care centers.

Severe Symptoms: Seek Emergency Care

Go to the Emergency Department if you have severe symptoms, such as:

  • Severe trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or dizziness
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

If you cannot get to the emergency department, call 9-1-1.

  • COVID-19: If you test positive for COVID-19, treatment options are available. Learn more about these options on our website.
  • Flu: Treatment options for flu are available, especially for those who are at high risk for severe flu. See the CDC website for more information. 
  • RSV: There are no RSV-specific treatments available.
  • Common cold: There are no specific treatments available for common colds

Vaccines and prevention

You should follow the recommendations below. If you have a child, you should help your child do the following:

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs and mobile devices.
  • If a child is in the highest of risk groups groups for flu, RSV or COVID, consider limiting time spent in crowded or shared spaces, such as day care, grocery shopping or indoor shopping areas.
  • Encourage breastfeeding or breastmilk, as it will provide infants with maternal antibodies.

These prevention tips will help prevent any respiratory illness and are good practice for the entire family.

Flu vaccine

  • Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot each season.
  • Flu vaccines are especially important for children younger than 5 years old (especially those younger than 2) and children of any age with certain chronic health conditions like asthma and diabetes. The flu vaccine is important for these groups because they are at higher risk for developing flu complications. See the CDC website for more information.

COVID-19 vaccine

RSV vaccine

For more information about RSV vaccines and prevention options, see our website.

To find a COVID or flu vaccine location near you, visit You can also find an updated COVID vaccine location by texting your zip code to 438829 or calling 1-800-232-0233. Many retail pharmacies are also offering the RSV vaccine, especially for adults ages 60 and older.

Many primary care and specialty offices across Mass General Brigham will also offer COVID, flu, and RSV vaccines at regularly scheduled office visits.

Additional Resources

Published November 3, 2023