Respiratory Illnesses

Respiratory Viral Infections Risk Index

Illnesses such as Influenza, COVID-19, Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and regular colds, affect the system in your body responsible for breathing, including your lungs, nose, and throat, and are commonly called respiratory illnesses. Most respiratory illnesses are mild to moderate, but some can be serious enough to require hospitalization or result in death.

Some people are at increased risk of infection or severe disease, including those in the following groups.

Influenza COVID-19 RSV
Individuals who are/have:
  • under 5 years old
  • 65 years of age or older
  • chronic health conditions (e.g. kidney disease, heart or lung conditions, diabetes, anemia and more)
  • pregnant
  • immunocompromised
  • living in long-term care homes, retirement homes and other congregate settings
  • 65 years of age or older
  • living in long-term care homes, retirement homes and other congregate settings
  • underlying medical conditions
  • immunocompromised
  • pregnant
  • Indigenous

  • under 1 year old, especially if they were born premature
  • 65 years of age or older
  • heart and lung conditions
  • immunocompromised

Common Respiratory Illnesses

Some of the most common respiratory illnesses that we see every year are:

  • Cough and colds:  Mild respiratory illnesses that are caused by a variety of viruses. These tend to be more common in the fall and winter months and are often milder.
  • Influenza (the flu): Caused by the influenza virus, the flu is a more serious infection than colds. It is especially dangerous for young children under 5 years old, adults over 65, pregnant individuals, and people who have a chronic medical condition or are immunocompromised. Getting your flu shot every year can help protect you and your family against the flu. Learn more about the flu.
  • COVID-19: COVID-19 infections can range from mild cold-like symptoms to severe illness that requires hospitalization and ventilation. Older adults over 65 years old and people who are pregnant, have a chronic medical condition or are immunocompromised are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Learn more about COVID-19.
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): A virus that affects the lungs and airway and can lead to further chest infections. The infection is most severe in young babies and older adults and can cause serious lung infections that may require hospitalization. Learn more about RSV.

Symptoms of Respiratory Illnesses

Many respiratory illnesses share common symptoms. These include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle soreness
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

Preventing the Spread

Respiratory illnesses can be easily spread from person to person. Following the tips below can help you to decrease your chances of getting sick and of spreading it to others.

  • Cover your mouth with your sleeve or elbow when you cough or sneeze, not your hands.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. If you don’t have soap and water, use hand sanitizer to clean your hands.
  • Avoid touching your face, including your nose, mouth, and eyes with unwashed hands.
  • Disinfect areas that are commonly touched, including door handles and counters.
  • Stay home if you are feeling sick. Do not spend time with individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness, including young children and infants, older adults and anyone who is immunocompromised.
  • If you must go out while you are sick, wear a mask. If someone in your household is sick, learn how to prevent the spread of infection at home.
  • Stay up to date on your immunizations, including the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine. Both the flu shot, and COVID-19 vaccines are available for people 6 months of age and older.
  • Keep young children and infants away from large crowds, as they may be at higher risk of severe illness.
  • Wear a mask when you are in crowded indoor areas with poor ventilation.

What to Do if You Have Symptoms

If you have symptoms, stay home until you no longer have a fever, and your other symptoms have been getting better for 24 hours (48 hours if you have gastro-intestinal symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea etc.).  Do not visit loved ones who may be at risk, including older adults living at home, in long-term care facilities or retirement homes, and those with young children at home. Wear a mask in public for 10 days after your symptoms start, including at school and child care (unless you are under 2 years old). Avoid non-essential activites where you need to take off your mask. Most respiratory illnesses can be treated at home, using over the counter medications.

Treatments for severe illness from COVID-19 (Paxlovid) or the flu (Tamiflu) are available if you are at risk of severe illness. Please do not hesitate to speak with your health care provider or pharmacist and seek treatment if you are eligible.

When to Go to an Emergency Room:

If you or someone you are caring for are experiencing the following symptoms, call 911 or visit an emergency room immediately.

For children:

  • Working hard to breathe (the lower chest is moving in more than normal when the child breathes, nostrils are flaring, child is grunting)
  • Bluish skin
  • Unable to breastfeed or drink
  • Very sleepy or difficult to wake
  • Peeing less than usual
  • Fever with rash
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Fever in an infant younger than 3 months

For adults:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Confusion

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