Dangerous childhood illness RSV also poses health risks in adults

Senior man being comforted by his wife while coughing

If you’re over the age of 2, you’ve probably had respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at some point in your life. RSV is a common virus of the upper respiratory tract that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, so you probably didn’t realize you even had it.

However, in young children, older adults and people with chronic health conditions, RSV can lead to serious illness and even death. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV leads to 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations in children under age 5 each year in the United States. In adults 65 and older, that number rises to 60,000 to 120,000.

RSV season normally starts in September to November, peaking in December to February and ending in mid-April to mid-May. But the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted typical RSV patterns starting in 2020, so RSV’s seasonality has been more unpredictable. This year, the U.S. is experiencing much higher rates of RSV-associated hospitalizations than we typically do this early in the fall.

Now that we’re in the midst of the cold, flu and virus season, here are some key things you should know about RSV.

1 RSV peaks during the colder months of the year.

There are many viruses circulating during this time of year and we always see an uptick in RSV cases in the fall, winter and spring, though this year’s flu and RSV season has started earlier, with more hospitalizations than normal.

2 RSV symptoms mimic other common viruses.

Initial RSV symptoms are pretty nondescript. They include congestion, runny nose, dry cough, sore throat, low-grade fever, headache and wheezing. Most people think they have a cold or the flu. If you spike a fever, experience shortness of breath or have severe wheezing, you’ll need to visit your doctor.

3 There is no specific treatment for RSV.

Unlike with the flu, there’s no treatment for RSV. Antibiotics and antiviral medications won’t help. There’s some good news on the horizon, though: As many as four new RSV vaccine candidates could soon be sent for review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

I usually recommend plenty of fluids to thin secretions, acetaminophen (Tylenol) to lower fever, and patience. Mild cases of RSV usually run their course in one to two weeks.

4 RSV can cause serious illnesses.

RSV can lead to serious lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, because the virus causes secretions in the lungs. Young babies, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems or chronic illnesses, such as lung or heart disease, can develop more serious infections because they can’t compensate for the mucus or fluid in their lungs. In young children, their small airways narrow with bronchiolitis, making it hard for them to breathe. Adults may have difficultly coughing up the thick mucus. If hospitalization is required, patients may receive supportive care and be placed on oxygen or ventilation to help improve breathing.

5 Good hand hygiene can prevent RSV.

RSV is spread through coughing, sneezing and coming into contact with surfaces that have the RSV virus on them and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. To prevent RSV, wash your hands often, cough and sneeze into your elbow, avoid sick people, don’t share towels or toothbrushes, and routinely clean high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs and countertops.

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