Respiratory Illness Tools and Resources for Patients
Stay Healthy Ontario
As more people spend time indoors, we can expect to see a seasonal rise in COVID-19, RSV, flu and other common colds and viruses.
The OCFP is sharing tips to help you stay healthy and manage your illness if you do get sick.
*Information is current as of October 24, 2023.
COVID-19 Vaccines This Fall: What You Need to Know
Everyone six months and up should get the updated COVID-19 vaccine this fall. COVID-19 vaccination is safe and effective and remains the best protection against severe illness, hospitalization, death and long-term health complications.
What is different about the COVID-19 vaccine being offered this fall?
The updated vaccines are designed to target the Omicron XBB.1.5 strain of the virus that is currently circulating in Canada. Health Canada has authorized two updated COVID-19 vaccines this fall (Pfizer’s “Comirnaty” and Moderna’s “Spikevax”).
Getting a dose of the updated vaccine will boost immunity and protect against the currently circulating strains of the virus as we head into colder weather and more indoor activities.
Who should get the updated COVID-19 Vaccine?
Ontario’s Ministry of Health, Health Canada, and the Canadian Pediatric Society recommend the 2023-2024 updated COVID-19 vaccine for everyone 6 months and older this fall as long as it has been at least 6 months since a previous COVID-19 vaccine or COVID-19 infection.
The updated vaccine is especially recommended for people at higher risk of severe illness, including pregnant people, people over 65, and people managing chronic health conditions.
What is the updated vaccine dosing schedule? How do I know if I am “up-to-date”?
For those 5 years of age and older, a single dose of the updated vaccine is all you need, regardless of previous vaccination status and even if you’ve never had any previous COVID-19 vaccinations. This is because most people aged 5 and up likely already have some COVID-19 immunity, either through previous vaccination, infection, or both.
Children aged 6 months to 5 years need multiple doses of COVID-19 vaccines to be up to date, including at least 1 dose of the updated COVID-19 vaccine. If you have a child under 5 years old, talk to your doctor about the right timing and doses for your child.
Influenza Vaccine “Flu Shot”
Influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone aged 6 months and older.
The flu shot is especially recommended for people at higher risk of getting really sick from the flu such as pregnant people, children under 5, people over 65, and people with chronic health conditions. Just like COVID-19, the flu virus changes over time so the vaccine formula is updated every year to help protect against the specific strain of the virus that is circulating in Canada.
When Can I Get my Influenza and COVID-19 Vaccines?
The vaccines are currently being rolled out across the province with the aim of vaccinating highest risk community members first. The vaccines will be available for the general population around the end of October.
Ask your family doctor if they are offering COVID-19 and influenza vaccines this fall. If you have an appointment coming up, ask if you can get your vaccines at that time.
Other options for accessing vaccines this fall:
• COVID-19 vaccines: you can also use the provincial booking portal to make an appointment by visiting the provincial website or calling 1-833-943-3900.
• Influenza vaccines: you can also get your flu shot from a participating pharmacy or through your local public health unit.
It is safe to receive your updated COVID-19 vaccine and influenza “flu” vaccine at the same time. Your baby or child can also receive their COVID-19 and influenza vaccines at the same time or any time before or after other routine vaccinations.
If you have children under 5: It is highly recommended to get them vaccinated for COVID-19, influenza (“the flu”) and pertussis (whooping cough) because they are at greater risk of severe complications from these respiratory illnesses.
If you are pregnant: It is highly recommended that you get vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu. The flu and COVID-19 are more severe during pregnancy and can cause complications. Vaccines are safe and effective during pregnancy and antibodies from vaccines are passed to the fetus and to your baby through breastmilk, providing protection to your newborn.
If you are 60 or older or have health conditions that might make you higher risk of getting really sick from respiratory illnesses, ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you (and family members you care for) should get other vaccines to prevent other serious illnesses such as RSV, pneumococcus and whooping cough.
With colder weather approaching and as we start spending more time indoors, respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19, influenza (flu), colds and RSV are set to increase. Layering protections can help you avoid getting and spreading respiratory illnesses:
• Stay up-to-date with vaccinations, including seasonal flu vaccines and COVID-19.
• Stay home when you feel sick.
• Mask up this fall and winter. Masking reduces the spread of illness. When hospitalizations are on the rise, consider wearing a mask in crowded public places—especially if you or someone in your household is at higher risk of severe illness. Wear a mask if you have symptoms. As the seasons change, we are seeing a rise in cases of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses are expected to increase over the coming months. Many hospitals in Ontario have brought back masking to help protect staff, patients and visitors over the respiratory virus season. When you visit your doctor’s office this fall and winter, bring a mask or wear a mask provided to you. Wearing a mask will help protect you and your family as well as the doctors, nurses and other staff at your clinic as well as high risk vulnerable patients who may also be visiting the doctor. Help keep your doctor and other healthcare providers healthy so they are able to provide care.
• Ventilate and clean indoor air at home: run fans, open windows and/or use air purifiers such as HEPA filters. • Wash or sanitize your hands often and well.
• Cough and sneeze into your elbow.
• If you are higher risk, know what to do if you get sick, you may benefit from antiviral treatments for the flu and COVID-19. These medications work best if you can start them as soon as possible after noticing symptoms. If you are pregnant or have recently given birth, older than 60 years of age and/or have health conditions or you are not up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccines, you may be at higher risk. Talk to your doctor about how you can access these medications.
Antiviral medications are available for people who have COVID-19 (even if mild) who are at higher risk of severe illness and hospitalization. Most treatments must be taken within the first five days of your symptoms starting. Use this screening tool from the Ministry of Health to see if you are eligible for antiviral treatments. These treatments are cost-free to anyone with a prescription. You can use the screening tool even if you do not have symptoms, to be prepared, in case you get sick. The tool will tell you how to access COVID-19 testing and receive a prescription for antiviral medication.
See our Family Doctor Tips on Caring for Children with Respiratory Symptoms for tips and information on:
• Staying healthy and preventing illness.
• Caring for sick children at home.
• When to call your family doctor.
• When to access emergency care.
See also our tipsheet for Teens and Adults with respiratory illness.
Are you at higher risk of serious illness from respiratory illnesses?
• If you are at higher risk it is especially important to stay up-to-date with recommended vaccinations, including vaccines for flu and COVID-19. Click here to access a screening tool to determine if you are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses.
• If you have children under 5, it is highly recommended to get them vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu (as well as whooping cough) because they are at greater risk of severe complications from these respiratory illnesses.
• If you are pregnant it is highly recommended that you get vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu. Your immune system isn’t as quick to respond to illnesses as it was before pregnancy. Flu and COVID-19 are more severe during pregnancy and can cause complications such as pre-term birth. Vaccines are safe and effective during pregnancy and antibodies from vaccines are passed to the fetus and to your baby through breastmilk, providing protection to your newborn.
• Make a plan this fall to prevent serious illness and know where you can go to seek timely care if you get sick. If you are at high risk of severe illness from respiratory illnesses, talk to your doctor about antiviral medications for flu or COVID-19. COVID-19 antivirals can also be prescribed by some pharmacists.
• If possible, get some COVID-19 rapid tests to use in case you get sick.
• Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you (and family members you care for) should get other vaccines to prevent other serious illnesses such as pneumococcus and whooping cough.
Antiviral treatments are recommended for people at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and the flu. These medications must be started as soon as possible after you start feeling sick.
COVID-19 Antiviral Treatments
• If you are pregnant, older than 60 years of age, have other health conditions, or are not up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccines, you may be at higher risk for severe illness.
• Find out if you are eligible for COVID-19 antivirals. You can use this screening tool from the Ministry of Health to see if you are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 and may benefit from antiviral treatments. You can use the screening tool even if you do not have symptoms, to be prepared, in case you get sick.
• COVID-19 antiviral treatments must be started within the first five or seven days (depending on the treatment) after you start feeling sick.
Flu Antiviral Treatments
•When the flu is going around your community, antiviral treatment is recommended for individuals who are pregnant, children and adults with other health conditions, and adults aged 65 and older.
•The flu antiviral treatments work best if you can start them within 48 hours of noticing symptoms.
If you test positive for COVID-19, and are 18-49 years old with one or more chronic condition(s) or over 50 years old, consider participating in the CanTreat Covid-19 Study. Researchers are studying medications to help people with COVID-19 feel better faster, stay out of the hospital, and prevent long COVID. Visit the website or call: 1-888-888-3308 to participate.
How can I tell if I have the flu, COVID-19 or RSV?
It is difficult to tell what the cause of respiratory symptoms is without testing. No matter what the cause of your illness is, most people should self-isolate and manage symptoms with simple things like rest, lots of fluids and over-the-counter medications.
If you think you might have the flu, antiviral medications are recommended if you are at higher risk of serious illness based on age or health conditions. Flu antivirals work best when they are started within two days of getting sick. If you are higher risk, don’t delay in reaching out to your doctor about this medication.
If you think you might have COVID-19, you can access rapid antigen tests (RATs) for COVID-19 at a pharmacy or through your public health unit. Get a good sample by swabbing your cheeks, throat, and nostrils. Instructions in multiple languages are available on Ontario Health’s website. If you test negative, take a second test at least 24 hours later to be most confident in the result.
COVID-19 PCR tests are available for people at risk of severe illness. If you get sick, seek out testing as soon as possible. You may be eligible for antiviral medications, which must be taken within the first five to seven days of your symptoms starting (depending on the treatment).
Use this screening tool to find out where to get tested and how to access medications.
Stop the Spread
The flu, COVID-19 and RSV are all very contagious. You can spread these respiratory illnesses for up to 10 days after starting to feel sick. To prevent spread, stay at home until you have no fever and symptoms are improving for at least 24 hours (or 48 hours if you are vomiting and/or experiencing diarrhea).
You should also take extra precautions for 10 days, including wearing a mask in public spaces and avoiding visiting friends and family who are at higher risk of serious illness. Follow this advice for any respiratory illness, whether you have tested for COVID-19 or not.
Ontario’s Ministry of Health has more information on protecting yourself and your loved ones from respiratory viruses and what to do if you get sick.
Here is a doctor-approved tipsheet to help you manage your illness at home and understand when to seek medical attention: Family Doctor Tips for Teens and Adults with Colds, the Flu or COVID-19. Also, see our Family Doctor Tips on Caring for Children with Respiratory Symptoms.
If you are struggling to care for yourself or a family member, don’t hesitate to call your family
doctor or seek medical attention. If you are asked to wear a mask when you come to visit
the doctor, please do so to protect other patients and staff.
You can also call 811 to speak with a registered nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week