Being sick yourself is no picnic. How about managing everything while your spouse huddles under a blanket sweating and shivering? No fun. And if it’s your school-age child who has the sniffles? Even worse. But dealing with a sick infant? The worst. This time of year, the flu may be on everyone’s minds as the major illness to watch out for. But there’s another culprit: RSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, RSV is a relatively common virus that causes severe lung infections, including bronchiolitis (infection of small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia (an infection of the lungs). The CDC states on its website that each year, 57,000-plus children younger than 5 are hospitalized due to RSV. It can affect the elderly as well. About 177,000 older adults are hospitalized each year with an RSV infection. Unfortunately, for about 14,000 of those older people, the infection proves fatal.
Dr. John Prpich, a pediatric pulmonologist at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital explains that the seasons vary, even across the state. Miami and Jacksonville could see spikes at completely different times. This year in Tampa Bay, the season looks to be October to March, and it’s unusually severe.
“It’s an early season and rapid increase,” Dr. Prpich says.
The state determines the extent of the season from positive swabs that come in from the emergency room and pediatrician’s offices. In November, the rate of RSV in Florida stood at 20-25 percent.
“It’s important to know that almost all kids get RSV by 3 years,” says Dr. Prpich. “It’s the most common reason worldwide for kids hospitalized.”
How can you tell if your infant has RSV? Prpich says to look for fast breathing, “like a puppy.” If the child is coughing excessively and working hard to breathe, you want to intervene before you see a chance of color. In babies 2 months and below, RSV can cause episodes of apnea, when the baby will turn “dusty” or blue, especially around the mouth or fingernails. A high fever is another sign.
Some children develop bronchiolitis and have a swelling airway that is stuffed and obstructed by mucus. Although most healthy infants, older children, and adults recover fairly easily, some patients may need to be treated with oxygen and IV fluids, and every year, some kids end up on a ventilator. Albuterol and steroids, which are used for other situations in which there is wheezing and difficulty breathing, won’t actually cure the problem. Although a type of drug called a monoclonal antibody can be given to some children who are especially at risk—such as preemies—as a preventative measure, there is currently no cure.
Another nuisance aspect of RSV—you can get it more than once in one season. Also, children who get a very significant case when they’re under 6 months may be at increased risk of other viruses, chronic lung disease, congestive heart disease and wheezing problems in their teen years and older.
The news isn’t all bad, however. Although there is no cure, prevention is low tech, easy and doable. You catch the sickness when you touch the droplets from someone’s cough or sneeze and then touch your face, nose, mouth or eyes. The virus can live for 8-12 hours on a surface. So do the following things to ensure you keep your baby safe from this disease this season:
- Wash your hands—constantly!—with soap and water.
- If your child is sick, don’t send them to daycare or school to spread their germs on toys and surfaces. Kids going back to school after the holidays is a major risk factor for RSV.
- Use antibacterial wipes at the grocery store to wipe carts.
- Newborns need bubble care. Everyone wants to touch the baby, but encourage visitors to touch baby’s feet rather than her face.
- If someone does get sick in your home, clean contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs, frequently.