Have you heard someone say their child has RSV? Did you have a COVID-19 test but were told you have rhinovirus? Or have you actually caught the real flu? What do they all mean?

Our Respiratory Heath Educators Mel and Kate decided to breakdown some of the more common respiratory viruses.

There are hundreds of types of viruses that can make us sick. Most respiratory viruses cause mild illness, like a common cold however they can also lead to more serious complications.

A virus is a live cell that is really small and very easily spread. When our body catches a respiratory virus the cells live in our upper airway (nose, sinus, mouth and throat) or lower airway (lungs) where they can cause infections that make us sick.

When we are exposed to these viruses they can trigger more symptoms for people with existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We call this a flare-up, attack or exacerbation. When your existing respiratory condition is well managed you are less likely to experience a flare-up if a virus comes along.

Some common types of respiratory viruses


  • This is the main cause of the common cold for adults and children
  • There are various strains, or types, of rhinoviruses
  • Most people only experience mild symptoms and recover quickly from this virus
  • This is the most predominant type of virus that is present all year round although more cases are detected in winter months
  • There is no vaccine available

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

  • It can cause mild symptoms or a simple cold for adults and children
  • Young children (12 months or less) are more at-risk of developing lung infections such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia
  • Other people at risk of more serious complications are those with heart conditions, lung conditions such as COPD or bronchiectasis, children with asthma, some immune system conditions and older people
  • There is no vaccine available, however some local research is taking place
  • This virus is more common in winter and spring


  • This virus is often referred to as the ‘flu’
  • There are many different strains of influenza viruses
  • An annual vaccination provides protection against the most common strains of the influenza virus
  • It is more common in late autumn to early spring
  • The symptoms associated with influenza are not the same as a simple cold and people generally feel much worse
  • This virus may lead to a life-threatening infection for some people and is a risk factor for people with asthma and COPD


  • There are many different strains of Coronavirus and most cause common cold symptoms
  • COVID-19, also known as SARS-COV-2, is a coronavirus that can cause more serious complications
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are also strains of coronaviruses associated with complications
  • Asthma is not a risk factor for serious complications from COVID-19, if your asthma is well controlled
  • Vaccinations are available for COVID-19

What are the symptoms?

After you are exposed to a respiratory virus, it may be anywhere from one or two days, up to 14 days later before any symptoms are noticed.

Most symptoms of a simple cold will only last one to two weeks.

Some of the most common respiratory virus symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • New cough

The symptoms above tend to be mild. With complications, in addition to the above symptoms, people may also experience:

  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Fatigue
  • Altered taste or smell
  • Trouble breathing
  • Worsening cough and wheezing
  • Babies having trouble feeding
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea and diarrhoea

Complications from respiratory viruses can include:

  • Bronchiolitis – inflammation of small air passages in the lungs
  • Croup – inflammation and swelling of the voice box (larynx), the windpipe (trachea) and the airways (bronchi)
  • Pneumonia – lung infection with inflammation
  • An Asthma or COPD flare-up or exacerbation

What are possible treatments?

Most symptoms are managed at home with self-care measures such as:

  • Drinking plenty of water and fluids. Warm drinks can help ease sore throats.
  • Lots of rest – usually for several days, will help to conserve energy and avoid risk of complications
  • Taking pain relief (e.g. paracetamol) to help with fevers as directed by doctor or pharmacist
  • Speak to a pharmacist about suitable remedies like nasal sprays that help clear stuffy noses

Antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial infections, but not viral infections, so they won’t help with respiratory viruses. Antiviral medication may be used if the virus has caused severe or prolonged infections such as with influenza. In most cases, viruses will clear up in a couple of weeks.

It’s important to visit your doctor if your symptoms are getting worse or you are experiencing:

  • Confusion
  • Dehydration symptoms such as dizziness or passing less urine than usual
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unable to keep liquids down due to vomiting

Asthma and COPD Action Plans should have clear instructions for how to manage a flare-up. This may include an increase in regular medications as well as any additional medications required as well as when seek medical advice.  

Our tips for respiratory viruses

A virus can live on surfaces anywhere from hours to days depending on the type. We are much more aware about just how quickly and easily some viruses can be spread and what we can do to reduce our risk of catching a respiratory virus and preventing the spread of germs:

  • Washing hands regularly with soap and water and/or using hand sanitiser
  • Coughing or sneezing into a tissue or elbow
  • Disposing of used tissues promptly and safely
  • Clean all shared surfaces and avoid sharing any items like utensils or spacers, even with family members
  • Following vaccination recommendations

When you have cold symptoms, or think you could be infectious, wearing a face mask in public can help to limit the spread to others. Stay home from work, school or childcare.

For people with asthma or COPD regular check-ups with your doctor will help to ensure that you are prepared to manage any flareups. It’s important to do this when you are feeling well and not waiting until you are sick. Here are some key points to talk about with your doctor:

  • If you have had any flare ups in the last 12 months
  • How you are responding to current treatments and checking you are using them correctly
  • Monitor your lung function with breathing tests like spirometry
  • Having a written action plans for asthma and COPD to help recognise worsening symptoms and knowing how to respond

If you have questions about asthma or COPD, call Asthma WA’s experienced Respiratory Health Team on (08) 9289 3600 to book a FREE consultation.

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