As we are all grappling with the summer surge of COVID-19 due to the Delta variant, there is also another virus that has been circulating widely, called respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV). RSV is an incredibly common respiratory virus, one that usually circulates between October and February. But with this year’s early surge hitting right at back-to-school time, there are some things that parents should be aware of.
To start, it’s estimated that by the age of two, almost all kids will have been infected by RSV—and it’s possible to get infected multiple times. “It’s probable that everyone has been infected with RSV at least once in their life,” said Dr. Michael Chang, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UTHealth Houston.
The vast majority of kids who get RSV will have a mild case—they might develop a runny nose, a cough, and even a high fever, but they’ll recover just fine. For adults, getting RSV usually just feels like a nasty cold, if they experience symptoms at all. However, more severe cases can, and do, occur.
Some children will need hospitalization due to RSV
Although the vast majority of children will be just fine, some will develop a severe case of RSV that requires hospitalization. A severe case has the risk of developing into either bronchiolitis, which is when the small airways of the lung become inflamed, or pneumonia.
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In an average year, an estimated 58,000 children are hospitalized due to RSV, with the average stay lasting for one to two days. Although deaths from RSV are rare, needing to be hospitalized due to a severe case of RSV is not.
Severe cases of RSV tend to occur in young infants
Severe cases of RSV tend to occur in young infants, generally under the age of six months, as well as children with lung or heart issues. This includes children with congenital heart defects, as well as children under the age of two who were born prematurely, due to their lungs being more vulnerable.
For children who are at high risk for complications from RSV, there is a drug called palivizumab that can help prevent severe illness from the virus, although it cannot cure or treat children who already have severe RSV. Unfortunately, there is still no vaccine for RSV.
If your child has RSV and is struggling to breathe, or you hear a wheezing sound when they breathe out, that’s a sign they need to go to urgent care or the hospital. For babies, if they are breathing fast or taking longer to feed, that’s a sign they need medical attention.
We are currently seeing a summer surge in RSV
Given all of the COVID-19 precautions in the past year and a half, doctors didn’t see very many RSV cases over the winter. However, once precautions started lifting, and people started getting out again, RSV cases started to rise, in an out-of-season summer surge that many doctors, including infectious disease experts like Chang, did not expect.
Currently, doctors are seeing a rate of RSV cases that are matching, if not exceeding, what they normally see in the winter. “This is all happening in the middle of August and July, which is completely unusual for RSV,” Chang said.
RSV hospitalizations are coinciding with COVID-19 hospitalizations
Unfortunately, what this means is that the kids who develop severe cases of RSV are ending up in the hospital during a time when capacity is already stretched thin due to COVID. In the summer, pediatric ICUs tend to see a lot of injuries from accidents, while in the winter, they see a lot of cases of flu and RSV.
“Typically RSV will peak and maybe start to come down, then flu will come up,” Chang said. “That’s usually what we see every winter.”
Right now, they are seeing the usual summer accidents, an influx of RSV, as well as all of the additional COVID-19 patients. This means hospitals that are full have to transfer some of their patients elsewhere.
“We will always find you a bed, but it might be in another state,” Chang said.
COVID-19 precautions work really well for RSV
The good news is that COVID-19 precautions are also incredibly effective at preventing RSV from spreading. “The interventions that we do for COVID-19—masks, physical distancing, hygiene—they’re the same ones you would do for RSV,” Chang said.
So mask up and keep washing your hands, because doing so will prevent not only COVID-19 from spreading, but RSV, as well.