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Protect yourself from seasonal breathing illnesses

Learn about symptoms and how to stay safe. 

October 5, 2023 | 2-minute read

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Viruses and bacteria (germs) cause airway infections. Infections can make you sick. These illnesses can spread all year. But they’re more common in fall and winter.

That’s because cold air makes it harder for your body to fight off germs. Plus, people usually stay inside more when it’s colder. Being inside puts you closer to other people. That means infections can spread more easily.

Make plans to keep you and your loved ones safe from common airway illnesses. It starts with getting the right shots.

Learn more about the most common kinds of breathing illnesses. 


Strep is caused by a group of bacteria known as streptococcus pneumoniae. Symptoms and how bad it can get change by body part. Strep can affect:

  • Brain
  • Ears
  • Lungs
  • Sinuses

Strep symptoms include:

  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

People most likely to get strep are:

  • Older adults
  • People with certain medical problem
  • Young children


Flu is caused by influenza germs. Symptoms can include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore muscles
  • Sudden sore throat

Young children and older adults are those with the highest chance of getting seriously ill with the flu.


COVID-19 is caused by Sars-CoV-2 germs. COVID-19 symptoms vary, but can include:

  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat

Those with the highest chance of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 are:

  • Older adults
  • People with disabilities (physical, mental or social problems that limit how well you can take care of yourself)
  • People with certain health problems
  • People whose bodies can’t fight off illnesses as well 


RSV is caused by respiratory syncytial germs. RSV symptoms are different for adults and children.

Adults’ symptoms can include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Runny nose
  • Trouble breathing or whistling noise when breathing

For babies, symptoms usually include:

  • Bad mood
  • Being less active
  • Trouble breathing

Young children and older adults have the highest chance of getting seriously ill with RSV. 

How to stay safe from breathing illnesses 

It’s important to ask your doctor if you’re up-to-date on your shots. Get all the shots your doctor suggests for you. Some shots you need to take every year, like the flu shot.

There are some steps you can take every day to keep from getting sick:

  • Don’t get close to people who are sick.
  • If you’re sick, help stop the spread. Cover your cough and sneezes. If you can, stay home when you’re sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If you don’t have soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth. This is how bacteria and viruses spread. 
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Stay up to date on your vaccines.  Get your recommended seasonal shots at an Optum location near you.

Get started

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The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.