Children’s hospitals and physicians across the country — including the Chicago area — are reporting a sharp rise in respiratory illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, in children.
“We have seen an upsurge in RSV infections in children, necessitating the admission of some of these children, especially younger ones, aged 6 months or younger,” said Dr. Rosibell Arcia-Diaz, pediatrician at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County. said in an interview with NBC 5.
Advocate Children’s Hospital in suburban Park Ridge reported a similar situation.
“The region is facing an increase in pediatric respiratory cases, leaving health care facilities, including Advocate Children’s Hospital, on high alert,” an Advocate Health Care spokesperson said in a statement. a statement. “Many sick children present with bronchiolitis, a lower respiratory tract disease commonly caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).”
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV season typically begins between mid-September and mid-November, and the virus often peaks only between late December and mid-February.
This year, however, the peak appears to be happening earlier than usual, with some experts saying the COVID pandemic may have played a role in the earlier rise.
“We see our children’s hospitals being quite full of children being admitted with RSV and, you know, other types of childhood viruses because for a few years when people were wearing masks and washing their hands and being very careful about cause of COVID, we’ve seen a lull in these other respiratory viruses,” said Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. “I really think the lull is over.”
And Illinois isn’t alone in seeing such an early rise in cases.
NBC News recently interviewed doctors from five states — California, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island — who all reported that pediatric hospital bed capacity is under strain due to an influx of patients. with RSV.
“We really have a capacity issue like I’ve never seen before,” Dr. Charlotte Boney, chief pediatrician at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, told NBC News.
The surge comes ahead of what health experts believe will be a particularly difficult flu season, and amid fears of a possible winter surge of COVID as new variants continue to emerge.
So what should parents know about RSV? Here’s a breakdown of what the virus is, what local doctors are saying, and what parents should know.
What is RSV?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, as a “common respiratory virus that typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms.”
“Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and the elderly,” the CDC says.
The virus is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under 1 in the United States, data show.
In fact, the CDC reports that “almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.”
According to the CDC, RSV causes approximately 58,000 annual hospitalizations and 100 to 300 deaths in children under age 5 each year in the United States.
What are the symptoms of RSV and how long can they last?
According to the CDC, people infected with RSV typically show symptoms within four to six days of infection.
“After a few days [from exposure]you can start to see some symptoms,” Arcia-Diaz said. “Every child is really different, but yeah, after exposure, most viruses tend to see symptoms within a few days.”
These symptoms can include:
- Runny nose
- Decreased appetite
- To cough
- To sneeze
These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once, according to the CDC.
“RSV typically produces difficulty breathing in some children, especially those with baseline issues,” Arcia-Diaz said. “With asthma, those are actually more likely to have wheezing from RSV. So in some kids it’s going to be more like a urinary tract infection, just a runny nose, sneezing, but other children will have this difficulty breathing….younger children, as I said, they will be more prone to having this difficulty breathing.”
What Chicago-area doctors are seeing
In September, NBC Chicago reported that area hospitals were on high alert for an increase in respiratory viruses among children.
“We’re certainly seeing an earlier rise in the number of respiratory illnesses. Typically, this outbreak of respiratory illnesses in children actually occurs, you know, mid-autumn through late fall and winter, so the fact that it’s not even fall and there’s already an increase that’s different from the norm,” Dr. Silvia Ardila, a pediatric critical care physician at Cook County Health, said at the time.
Additionally, Chicago-area experts report that the surge looks slightly different from previous years in the age range of affected children.
“In the past, we tend to see mostly little kids, like I mentioned before, 6 months or younger or kids who have basic issues like asthma or whatever, you know, history prematurity, for example… Now we’re seeing some older kids, like, you know, 2, 3 year olds who are also being admitted, needing a bit more support and not really being able to treat the infection just at home,” Arcia-Diaz said.
While other respiratory viruses are also circulating in children, Acia-Diaz noted that the numbers for these are much lower than those for RSV.
“We were seeing other viruses but, you know, not really to the same degree as RSV,” she said, adding that Stroger Hospital has also seen cases of rhinovirus and influenza, but “the numbers are not comparable” to RSV. .
Acia-Diaz also pointed out that this year, in many cases, children are experiencing consecutive infections from multiple viruses.
“Another thing we see is, for example, children getting one infection, then a few days later they get another one, and then the parents are really worried because it seems like a never-ending story,” said said Arcia-Diaz. . “In particular, I see this in the clinic with kids going to daycare, for example, and then they can have a fever from this virus, you know, and then two days later, you know, three days later after they are much better then they start getting another virus.”
A good reason for this, she said, could be due to how the COVID pandemic has evolved and how early stay-at-home orders may have impacted how often children have been exposed – or not exposed – to certain viruses.
“One of the theories is like, you know, kids used to be home, wearing masks, not really like necessarily being outside, which we’re seeing more now. So, you know, over the last two years, when they were in their homes, like they weren’t really exposed to viruses,” Arcia-Diaz said. “So some, you know, children create immunity when they get these infections, and RSV, an infection that they usually get early in life, if those kids haven’t been exposed to RSV earlier because they wore masks or they didn’t go to school, etc., so now they are at risk of contracting the infection.”
When should you seek medical attention for your child?
“Younger children with difficulty breathing should definitely be seen by their pediatrician. Older children, the same. Any difficulty breathing, any decrease in activity, any decrease in oral intake,” Arcia-Diaz said. “Same for young children. Children can easily become dehydrated. So that’s one of the warning signs we give to parents. It’s, you know, if your child isn’t eating enough, not drinking business as usual – for example baby not taking bottles like before – as all of these will be what we call red flags and parents should draw attention if this is the case.”
The CDC says parents should contact their health care provider if their child “is having trouble breathing, not drinking enough fluids, or has worsening symptoms.”
How long does it last?
According to Arcia-Diaz, RSV infections typically last about seven to 10 days.
“RSV is usually like a self-limited disease,” she said. “It’s going to take around seven to ten days for the child to fully recover. And we usually see a peak after a few days where children can get worse. So sometimes they can start with a very mild infection, the second or day three. they can peak, and then maybe they can look sicker. And if that’s the case, again, they should be seen by their pediatrician,” a- she declared.
Is it treatable?
According to the CDC, most RSV infections go away on their own.
There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine for the virus, although the CDC reports that researchers are working to develop some.
For those who are hospitalized, Arcia-Diaz said they receive supportive measures like supplemental oxygen or IV fluids for dehydration and nebulization.
What can parents do for a child with RSV?
The CDC says parents can work to relieve symptoms by offering children pain relievers or over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, making sure children drink plenty of water, and communicating with health care providers. health about other medications that might help.
“For some kids, for example, if you see their intake go down or they don’t eat as much solid food as they used to, [parents] can try, for example, Pedialyte… Just keep the child hydrated, like really keeping the child hydrated, even if it’s with fluids, liquids, whatever the child is willing to take,” Arcia said. -Diaz. “It will be very important. Another thing will be temperature controlled. So if the child has a fever, he can try to give him… medicine for the fever. They’ll be like two very easy options for these kids to do.”
Can adults get RSV?
According to the Mayo Clinic, RSV can also infect adults, but symptoms in healthy adults or older children are usually mild, often mimicking a cold.
What preventive measures can you take?
Here are some preventative measures the CDC says you can take:
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the top of your shirt sleeve, not your hands
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Avoid close contact, such as kissing, handshakes, and sharing cups and cooking utensils, with others
- Clean frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs and mobile devices