What is a Tripledemic? Learn How to Keep Your Family Safe

September 14, 2023

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Armando Philip S. Paez, MD Armando Philip S. Paez, MD View Profile
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As the winter months approach and seasonal sicknesses arise, you may hear the term tripledemic more frequently in the news. What is a tripledemic? And should you be worried?

What Is a Tripledemic?

“Tripledemic refers to a scenario where the number of flu, COVID-19, and RSV cases are significantly increasing at the same time out in the community,” says Dr. Armando Paez, chief of Infectious Disease at Baystate Health. “The threat of [a] tripledemic is recognized when the increase in the number of infections from the three respiratory viruses increases to the point that the healthcare system is overwhelmed and unable to deliver effective and appropriate medical care to patients.”

While the thought of three circulating illnesses this season can be quite intimidating, don’t panic. There are preventative measures which you can take to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community from the viruses in a tripledemic, or triple pandemic.

COVID vs. Flu vs. RSV

While each virus may have slightly different symptoms, “there is no reliable way to tell [from symptoms alone] which respiratory infection is which,” advises Dr. Paez.

Here are some common symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, and RSV, according to the CDC:


  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle/body aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion/runny nose
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea


  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills (although not everyone with the flu may experience a fever)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Tiredness
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)


  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

"You can suspect the type of respiratory infection you may have, but the only way to be sure is to specifically test yourself for any or all three infections,” says Dr. Paez. “And there are other respiratory viruses that can manifest similar symptoms.”

Prompt testing for these respiratory infections will allow early detection of cases.

“If the test is positive, you should follow the recommended quarantine/isolation, and seek medical care if you do not feel well. You should contact your primary care provider, as you may need to be treated to avoid complications or hospitalization from the infection,” advises Dr. Paez.

How Does a Tripledemic Spread?

The ways in which COVID-19, the flu, and RSV are spread are very similar. Here is how you might catch each virus.


COVID-19 is spread through inhaling airborne particles, or droplets, when people breathe, speak, sing, yell, cough, or sneeze. Particles containing COVID-19 can circulate in the air for several hours in some cases. You cannot contract the COVID-19 virus from a surface. However, it is the most contagious of the three, as it can be airborne much longer than flu or RSV.


The flu is also spread through inhaling airborne particles, or droplets. In addition, you can catch the flu from touching something that has the virus on it, like a doorknob or a handle, and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose. According to the CDC [opens in PDF], the flu virus can live on certain surfaces for up to 48 hours.


RSV is also spread through inhaling airborne particles, or droplets, or touching an infected surface. Additionally, you may contract RSV through direct contact with someone who has it, such as shaking hands.

One of these infections isn’t necessarily worse than another, inherently. How sick you get from a virus may depend on your age, overall health, immunity, and other factors.

Can We Prevent a Tripledemic?

There are several preventative measures that you can take to help to keep yourself and those around you safe:

  • Stay up-to-date with the recommended vaccinations against these three respiratory infections. Read more about the COVID-19 booster, updated flu and the new RSV vaccines
  • Use a face mask when there is a high risk of transmission in the community
  • Practice good hand hygiene and wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water
  • Disinfect commonly touched areas like doorknobs, handles, and countertops
  • Be aware of early detection and treatment of cases

When Should You Contact Your Doctor or Go To the ER?

While more mild cases of these viruses are treatable at home, you may need to be treated with an antiviral medication if you are at risk of developing severe infection. You should also keep an eye out for any uncommon or alarming symptoms that should prompt you to take your child or yourself to the ER.

“Emergency signs are difficulty breathing, chest pain, or confusion/altered mental state,” says Dr. Paez. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 or go to the ER immediately.

How Worried Should You Be About a Tripledemic?

Remember that a tripledemic may or may not happen, but it is something to prepare for during the respiratory season.

“The potential danger of the tripledemic is unpredictable,” says Dr. Paez. “This may partly depend on how the communities prepare for this potential scenario, including updating vaccinations against these infections and other public health measures that are known to prevent transmission.”

Although fairly rare, “it is also possible to get all three infections at once,” says Dr. Paez.

Do your best to keep yourself, your family, and your friends safe. Follow recommended preventative measures and continue to educate yourself about these infections. A tripledemic may not be preventable but preparation can help avoid sickness, hospitalizations, and loss of lives of the most vulnerable in our communities.

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