As the cold weather leads to more time spent indoors, respiratory illnesses – including COVID, the flu and RSV – are on the rise, with some health officials referring to the convergence as a “tripledemic.”
Over the past few years, measures to prevent COVID-19 – masks, social distancing and remote learning – greatly reduced exposure to RSV and other respiratory illnesses. Children’s immune systems are now playing “catch-up,” which is why we’re seeing a much higher number of cases in Westchester than in previous years. The good news is that the majority of patients with RSV do not require hospitalization.
Here’s what to know about RSV, symptoms to watch for in your child, and what to do if you suspect your child might have RSV.
What is RSV?
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that affects the lungs and breathing passages. The virus attacks the respiratory tract, causing the body to produce a thick mucus that can be difficult to clear. Most children contract RSV without complications before they reach age two, and the condition usually clears within a week.
Symptoms are typically mild and similar to those of the common cold, such as a runny nose, decreased appetite, and cough. For babies, who have smaller airways than older children, mucus buildup can make feeding and breathing difficult, or cause vomiting. Symptoms in infants may be limited to irritability, decreased activity, decreased appetite and pauses in breathing for more than 10 seconds, also known as apnea.
RSV can also cause bronchiolitis, a fairly common lung infection in young children and infants that causes inflammation and congestion in the small airways of the lung. Parents of children under 2 should monitor their child’s respiratory symptoms more closely than they would in the case of a milder cold virus.
In premature infants and young children with chronic lung disease, congenital heart disease or neuromuscular disorders, RSV can lead to more severe illness or require hospitalization. The virus causes between 58,000-80,000 hospitalizations every year among children under 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That’s not to say that adults are safe from RSV. Chronically ill or immunocompromised adults, as well as those over 65, can be particularly susceptible to the virus, again leading to hospitalization or even death. Each year, the CDC estimates that between 60,000-120,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized because of RSV, with 6,000-10,000 of them dying due to the infection.
When to Call Your Pediatrician
Even if their symptoms are mild, babies under three months with known exposure to RSV should be seen by a healthcare professional as soon as possible. Call your child’s pediatrician if he or she is not drinking enough fluids, experiences difficulty breathing, or if mild symptoms continue to worsen.
Keep in mind that RSV is spread through contaminated surfaces and through air droplets, so the same prevention measures used against the cold and flu apply here. Disinfect high-touch surfaces, cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands, wash your hands frequently, keep sick children home and avoid contact with others who are sick.
Dr. David Cohen is a pediatrician with Scarsdale Medical Group. For an appointment, call 914-723-8100.