You’ve probably heard the news: brace yourself for a particularly bad season for respiratory viruses. So, why are public health experts putting us on alert?
Pandemic lockdowns and preventive health measures helped limit the spread of COVID-19 and other common respiratory viruses, such as the common cold and flu, in our communities. But, as we’ve returned to mask-free socializing outside of our immediate families, seasonal viruses have made a comeback — respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is of particular concern.
RSV in the News
You may have heard a lot about RSV lately. RSV typically arrives in the late autumn or early winter, but this year, RSV started showing up in the spring and caused an unprecedented surge in children across the country. The number of new cases has increased up to 300 percent compared to a typical season in some places.
Health experts believe that the shift in the usual pattern can be attributed to people returning to pre-COVID activities (returning to the office, going back into the classroom, and traveling). People may also be easing up on preventive health measures, such as social distancing, frequent handwashing, and masking, that help prevent the spread of germs.
To protect your family, here’s what you need to know about RSV.
RSV is a common respiratory virus that causes illness of the nose, throat, and lungs. It’s so common that most children will have had an RSV infection by age two.
RSV is very contagious and can be spread from person-to-person through droplets containing the virus when someone coughs or sneezes. It can also live on surfaces (such as countertops, doorknobs, or toys) and unclean hands, so it can be easily spread when a person touches something contaminated.
For most people, it usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms such as:
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Sore throat
- Low-grade fever
- Decrease in appetite
While most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two, it can lead to bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Those at a greater risk for severe infection include infants and young children, especially premature infants, children with chronic lung disease (such as asthma) or congenital heart disease, and children with weakened immune systems (immunocomprised). Older adults (age 65+) are also at a higher risk for developing severe RSV.
Signs and symptoms of severe RSV infection include:
- Short, shallow, and rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
- Struggling to breathe — chest muscles and skin pull inward with each breath
- Severe cough
- Poor feeding
- Unusual tiredness
- Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen
Treatment for RSV
The good news is that most RSV infections do not require medical treatment. You can help your child feel more comfortable at home with supportive care measures, including suctioning their nose, giving them acetaminophen, using a cool-mist humidifier, and making sure they get plenty of rest and fluids to stay hydrated.
While there is no treatment or vaccine for children who already have RSV, there is a preventive medicine that can protect some babies (premature infants and young kids with heart and lung conditions) from the risk of serious RSV infection. This medicine is only given to kids under two years old at high risk for serious RSV complications. Talk to your doctor to see if your child requires this medicine.
If your child has problems breathing or becomes dehydrated, they may require hospitalization for a few days. Treatment for a severe RSV infection may include:
- IV fluids
- A breathing machine, in rare cases
When to Seek Care
As RSV and other respiratory infections continue to surge, emergency rooms and hospitals across the country are overwhelmed with pediatric patients. To avoid long waits and help protect your child, here’s what to do if your child is sick:
- Call your pediatrician if your child has a fever, cough, wheezing, signs of dehydration (dry mouth, fewer than one wet diaper every eight hours), crankiness, or loss of appetite. They can advise you on what to do, including scheduling a telemedicine or in-person visit.
- Seek immediate medical attention if your child has difficulty breathing, a high fever, or a blue color to the skin, particularly on the lips and in the nail beds.
Protect Your Child From RSV and Other Respiratory Illnesses
As RSV, the common cold, flu, COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses continue to circulate throughout our communities, you can help prevent the spread of germs and keep your family healthier by:
- Wearing a mask is an everyday precaution that people can take to reduce their chances of catching or spreading a respiratory virus. Both adults and children should wear masks.
- Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Covering your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve. Then, throw the tissue in the trash, and wash your hands.
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoiding close contact with sick people.
- If you are sick with cold-like symptoms, stay home if possible, wear a mask in public, and avoid interaction with children and adults at high risk for severe RSV disease.
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs.
- Making sure everyone in your family is up-to-date on all their immunizations, including the flu and COVID-19 vaccines.
The CDC has a virus tracker with regional and national information to help you see where cases of common viruses are higher. This can be especially helpful to assess the risk for illness if you’re planning to travel or have family or friends visiting from other areas of the country.