The flu season has come early and severely this year. Babies and toddlers are the most affected, and pediatricians and children’s hospitals were not prepared for the high number of cases in such a short amount of time. Unlike during the pandemic, there’s no one virus at fault here; rather, it’s many, including parainfluenza viruses, adenoviruses, rhinoviruses, and enteroviruses. But respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the worst of the lot. Some children are even diagnosed with several viruses at once.
Increases in Cases of Respiratory Syncytial Virus
Babies and toddlers are at the highest risk for severe respiratory illness because of their underdeveloped immune systems and tiny airways. Plus, they have no immunity built against viruses they have never been exposed to before. Many children have been at home throughout the beginning of their lives due to lockdowns for COVID-19, away from viruses that could have strengthened their immune systems. But as they go to playgroup or kindergarten for the first time with no vaccinations, they are vulnerable.
As the number of cases increases, the pediatric hospital bed occupancy is at 80% or more in 17 states according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Almost 75% of the estimated 40,000 pediatric beds in the United States are full. Bear in mind, most experts anticipated the RSV peak around November and December. Most kids getting sick exhibit typical symptoms of the flu, such as fever, cough, fatigue, body aches, and sore throats. However, RSV’s symptoms are similar, as are other viruses, making the signs hard to differentiate. 
Respiratory syncytial virus can infect the lungs and airways, causing breathing problems, and it especially affects children. Similar to the flu, these symptoms include headaches, coughs, runny noses, fevers, sore throats, not eating or drinking well, and overall feeling ill. RSV could also lead to wheezing, dehydration, and pneumonia or bronchitis — especially for premature babies and kids with pre-existing conditions concerning the lungs, heart, or immune system. 
However, contact your healthcare provider if the child has a high fever, if the cough worsens, if they start wheezing, if they show signs of dehydration, or if the infant is cranky and refuses to feed. Seek immediate medical attention if the child is having difficulty breathing, is breathing rapidly, is very drowsy, or has blue-tinged lips or digits.
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How is RVS Treated?
Most cases of respiratory illnesses in children could be treated at home with plenty of rest, fluids, and medicines to reduce fever. Having an infection or virus does not necessarily mean the child needs hospital care; that depends on how the child is doing. Although RSV can be serious, most children who have it experience mild symptoms akin to the common cold. So it’s important to monitor affected children’s symptoms and know when to contact medical help. For babies, be sure to clear their stuffy noses with saline or “snot suckers“. They need to be able to breathe properly while drinking and swallowing; otherwise, they may choke. 
Newborns, in particular, are very vulnerable to infections because of their low immunity; plus, premature infants can have underdeveloped lungs. Children who are significantly immunocompromised, or have heart or lung diseases are also at higher risk. Cases that fall under these categories should have a lower threshold for calling a healthcare practitioner.
Otherwise, a generally healthy child who develops respiratory symptoms requires immediate professional care if they start having difficulties with breathing, wheezing, and staying hydrated. For other issues, like a fever or cough or lethargy, a generally healthy child may wait to see their pediatricians during their regular office hours. Even before a child gets sick, have a plan. Find out if your pediatrician has an on-call service, and if not, know which hospital you should bring your child to in case of an emergency. Look for one closest to you with pediatric emergency medicine specialists. 
How to Prevent RVS
RVS spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The respiratory droplets can land on a doorknob or other surface and when someone touches it and then touches their face, they can contract the virus. Often, the illness is so mild, some adults don’t know they have it, or they think it’s a small cold or allergy. This can lead them to unknowingly pass it on to others — including young children and infants.
To prevent the spread, frequently clean surfaces that are touched often, like doorknobs, phones, counters, etc. Avoid sharing cups and eating utensils, and avoid close contact with people who are feeling sick. Also, teach kids to sneeze and cough into their elbows or a tissue instead of their hands.
“Hand hygiene is the single most important thing that we can do to keep ourselves and others safe,” said Dr. Mallory Davis, an infection preventionist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She adds that people should never touch their faces before they wash their hands. Additionally, adults or children under the weather should adhere to Davis’ final recommendation. “Stay home when you are sick so you won’t spread whatever respiratory illness you have.” 
Keep Reading: Family reveals ordeal of 2-year-old son in hospital with 3 viruses simultaneously
- “Flu, RSV, other viruses surging in young kids, catching doctors ‘off guard’.” NBC News. Erika Edwards. October 25, 2022
- “Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).” Kids Health.
- “What is RSV? Here’s what to know about the virus as cases surge in Canada.” Global News. Aya Al-Hakim. October 27, 2022
- “Can your child’s respiratory infection can be treated at home? How to know.” CNN. Katie Hetter. October 28, 2022
- “A common respiratory virus is spreading at unusually high levels, overwhelming children’s hospitals. Here’s what parents need to know.” CNN. Jen Christensen and Raenu Charles. October 28, 2022