SPRINGFIELD — It’s not just the cold and flu that parents need to worry about this fall and winter season.
Pediatricians at Baystate Children’s Hospital are already seeing cases of the highly contagious respiratory syncytial virus, better known as simply RSV, which is most prevalent during the months of December, January, and February.
“Over the past four years, nationwide data has shown that the RSV season has been arriving a couple of weeks earlier and lasting a few weeks later than in past years,” said Dr. Michael Klatte of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Division at Baystate Children’s Hospital. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of these differences could be due to increased use of newer tests used to diagnose RSV; however, seasonality of viruses like RSV can also be influenced by many different factors, such as changes in population, climate, and pollution.”
While RSV results in mild, cold-like symptoms for most — a runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, and fever — it’s nothing to sneeze at for some and can lead to serious illness, especially for infants and older adults.
“Parents, however, should not be overly alarmed,” said Klatte, who noted that only a small percentage of youngsters develop severe disease and require hospitalization. “Those hospitalized often have severe breathing problems or are seriously dehydrated and need IV fluids. In most cases, hospitalization only lasts a few days, and complete recovery usually occurs in about one to two weeks.”
RSV is also the most common cause of bronchiolitis and viral pneumonia in children under one year of age.
Each year, according to the CDC, approximately 57,000 children under 5 years of age are hospitalized with the infection. Most infants are infected before age 1, and virtually all children have had an RSV infection by 2 years of age. RSV can also affect older children, teenagers, and adults.
Those who have a higher risk for severe illness caused by RSV include premature babies, adults 65 years and older, people with chronic lung disease or certain heart problems, and people with weakened immune systems, such as from HIV infection, organ transplants, or specific medical treatments like chemotherapy.
While several companies are now conducting vaccine trials, there is currently no vaccine to prevent the illness, and there is no antibiotic to help cure it. Like a cold, RSV must run its course, Klatte noted.
Low-grade fevers are common with RSV infections, and may come and go for a few days. If a child is having high fevers without relief for multiple days, or increased difficulty with breathing (such as wheezing, grunting, or ongoing flaring of the nostrils) is observed along with a child’s runny nose and cough, then a visit to the doctor is warranted.
“It’s all about symptom management — making sure your child is hydrated, his or her fever is under control, and that they’re not having any trouble breathing,” Klatte said. “The good news is that most infants and children overcome RSV infections without any long-term complications.”