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It’s a Bad Year for RSV Illness

It’s a Bad Year for RSV Illness

This winter, infectious disease has surged unlike any year I’ve seen in my previous 44 years as a physician. Covid-19, influenza, and strep are leading the list, but in infants and toddlers, RSV has been the biggest – and most dangerous – culprit. Throughout the country, children’s hospitals are filling up with babies suffering from shortness of breath due to this virus. Although the CDC doesn’t track this infection, many children’s hospitals are at capacity – or even overwhelmed – due to the virus.

RSV is a common respiratory virus, basically a typical “cold” with symptoms of runny nose, cough, sneezing and fever. Almost all children have had the infection by age two, with development of partial immunity, although re-infection with different strains can occur throughout our lives. Most children have only mild symptoms, but excess mucus can progress to wheezing, shortness of breath and pneumonia. 

Symptoms develop four to six days after the child is infected, and resolve in one or two weeks. For mild symptoms, home treatment with fever medicines – such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen – should be sufficient. If the child shows signs of having trouble breathing – such as rapid breathing, wheezing, purple lips, or using belly muscles to breathe – advanced medical care such as oxygen or breathing treatment may be needed. 

Being a respiratory virus, the infection is spread through cough droplets. Although the virus can be found on hard surfaces such as crib rails and doorknobs for up to four hours, this isn’t a likely way for the virus to spread. Although several sources recommend deep cleaning, it’s probably not helpful. On the other hand, an air filter that catches viruses would be a good addition to the nursery.

Children with RSV infection are usually contagious for about eight days. Those at higher risk of developing more serious infection include children with pre-existing conditions such as prematurity, heart or lung issues, or weak immune systems. 

There’s currently no vaccine for RSV. A vaccine was developed in the 1960s, but it not only made the disease worse, it caused fatal reactions in a few infants.

Some physicians blame the use of masks during the Covid-19 epidemic these past two years for lowering the spread of RSV, making this year susceptible to this high outbreak. Others blame the unusually early cold weather. Certainly, we can’t prevent our children from catching viruses. 

If cold symptoms seem to be causing trouble breathing, take your child to the doctor to be checked for RSV.

Philip L. Levin, MD is a Coast-based physician and writer. He is the author of numerous award-winning stories and poems, many nonfiction articles, and eight published books, including two children’s books.

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