Happy respiratory virus season kids! We’re now in the depths of winter, which has brought with it a triple threat of respiratory diseases – the so-called “tripledemic”. But what does that actually mean? And how concerned should we be? We’ve got you covered.
What is the tripledemic?
The term tripledemic refers to the combination of three respiratory viruses: COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Concerns were rife back in 2022, but seem to have sparked up again as the winter virus season rages.
“People are using the word ‘tripledemic’ to refer to three prominent respiratory viruses that began their circulation, unseasonably, very early this year,” Dr William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told GlaxoSmithKline.
“All of these… are active simultaneously, not to mention that there are other winter respiratory viruses that have not received quite as much publicity.”
As the weather gets colder, and people are forced indoors in closer proximity to one another, virus transmission increases, Schaffner explained, adding that an uptick in traveling over the holidays can also help drive this.
Should I be concerned?
COVID-19, flu, and RSV all have relatively similar symptoms. They all affect the respiratory system, so coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose are hallmarks of each. While such symptoms tend to be mild for most people, for older adults, young infants, or people with a compromised immune system, they can present a greater risk.
Unfortunately, it is possible to become infected by more than one virus at once – and while this can mean that symptoms are worse, they can also be the same, if not better, than when just one virus is present.
“We’ve had patients come into our clinics testing positive for both COVID and flu,” Dr Caroline Goldzweig, chief medical officer of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Network, told Cedars-Sinai blog earlier this month. “Having one doesn’t protect you from the other.”
While Goldzweig reported a steady rise in respiratory viruses since November, more recent national estimates suggest that cases might have fallen off in recent weeks.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the amount of respiratory illness (fever plus cough or sore throat) causing people to seek healthcare is elevated across most areas of the country, though some decrease in activity is noted.” The week ending January 19, 25 jurisdictions experienced “high or very high” levels of patients seeking care for respiratory illness symptoms – down from 37 the previous week.
Likewise, emergency department visits involving flu, COVID-19, and RSV are still elevated but seem to be decreasing. Meanwhile, COVID-19 and RSV test positivity has decreased, but influenza test positivity has remained stable.
How do I protect myself?
Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect yourself, and they’re no doubt things you’ve heard countless times before.
First up: vaccines.
The CDC recommends that everyone aged 5 years and older should get one dose of an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect against serious illness.
There are also seasonal flu vaccines, which the CDC recommends for everyone aged over 6 months old – especially those at higher risk of developing serious flu complications. RSV vaccination is recommended for infants or pregnant people, and may be available to those over 60 on the advice of a doctor.
“Vaccines clearly assist in the prevention, particularly in the most serious aspects of both influenza and COVID-19,” added Schaffner. “By getting vaccinated you help protect yourself and may also extend some of that protection to your family, your neighbors, and your communities.”
Schaffner also advises hand-washing, staying home if you’re sick, wearing a mask, and social distancing.
“If we do become ill, we can contact our healthcare provider, particularly if we’re in one of these high-risk groups. [But] if you have any kind of questions, always it’s recommended to speak to your healthcare provider. Have that conversation.”
The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.