It’s not even winter and physicians across the nation are sounding the alarm on RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus), a common childhood illness, that all but disappeared with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is back with a vengeance this year just as the flu season is kicking off and a COVID-19 winter surge could be on the horizon.
While experts don’t know for sure what is driving the surge of cases plaguing hospitals locally and nationally, the end of COVID-19 masking and social distancing are believed to be key factors.
Most seen in children before the age of 2, RSV can lead to serious infection, particularly in infants and young children, and in older children who have certain chronic conditions, such as asthma. It can also severely affect the lungs and respiratory airways in older adults.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that adults at highest risk for severe RSV infection include those 65 years of age and older, adults with chronic heart or lung disease, and adults with weakened immune systems.
It is estimated that between 60,000 to 120,000 older adults in the U.S. are hospitalized and 6,000 to 10,000 die due to RSV infection each year.
The virus usually starts off like a bad cold with any combination of fever, runny or stuffy nose, cough and or sneezing. In more severe cases, the infection can lead to trouble breathing, and that is when babies require medical care. Their breathing is faster than usual, and they will look like they are working to breathe. Their nostrils may flare, their stomach looks like it is being sucked in, and the rib cage becomes more accentuated. If a baby’s blood oxygen level dips, the lips may appear bluish in color.
Children can get RSV when respiratory droplets containing the virus enter their eyes, nose, or mouth. Parents are advised to seek help if they suspect their child has RSV which spreads mostly through coughs and sneezes, although the virus can also be picked up when coming into contact with contaminated surfaces.
Children who are having difficulty breathing need to be admitted to the emergency department.
While those infected are typically contagious for 3-8 days, some people, especially those with weakened immune systems, can be contagious for as long as 4 weeks—even after they stop showing symptoms.
With no RSV vaccine currently available to the general public, the CDC recommends Over-the-counter fever reducers, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen (do not give children aspirin); staying hydrated; and expelling congestion by blowing the nost, using suctioning or saline drops.
The vast majority of RSV cases, however, don’t require treatment and go away on their own within one to two weeks.