November 11, 2022 – A sick child from Northern California had to go to Portland, OR to find a bed in the ICU. A child in Oregon was flown to Nevada last week due to a shortage of hospital beds. The culprit? Respiratory syncytial virusor RSV.
“These stories are not unique and happen across the country,” he says Wendy Hasson, MD, spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland. “This has been an unprecedented respiratory virus season, both in terms of timing and the number of children affected.”
Most children get RSV before their second birthday. People with the highly contagious respiratory infection usually have the same symptoms as the common cold but can develop complications that can become life-threatening — especially for infants, people with compromised immune systems, and older adults.
Hasson says the previously predictable illness, which usually peaks in January, has shifted its timeline up. She’s now seeing an “overwhelming surge” 2 months earlier. About 80% of patients in their ICU have RSV. In previous years, the median age for children hospitalized with the virus was under 2 years old. Now Hasson routinely sees 3- to 5-year-olds on the ward.
The recent spike in RSV cases prompted the CDC on Nov. 4, a health advice to raise public awareness of the spreading disease.
Pediatric practices are fully booked and many parents are currently unable to come to see a sick child. If you can’t go the outpatient route, it’s important to know when it’s okay to watch and wait at home or when it’s time to go to the emergency room or emergency room. Read on for what parents should know as they navigate the recent RSV surge.
Find out about symptoms
Hasson says parents should monitor three things in their children to help decide if it’s safe to keep them at home or if they need to see a doctor: breathing, fluid balance and alertness.
It is important to see a doctor if:
These symptoms of RSV are often worse by days 4 to 6 of infection.
How to help your child at home
Cough, fever lasting up to 5 days, runny nose, decreased appetite and chills are among the many normal and overlapping symptoms of multiple viruses, including RSV, according to Samira Armin, MD, a Houston-area pediatrician. But fever alone is not a reason to see a doctor right away.
“Viruses have to run their course, and antibiotics and prescription drugs don’t usually work for viruses, so doctors often recommend home care,” says Armin.
She cautions against using cough suppressants for children, instead recommending helping them hydrate and rest and not sending them back to school or daycare too early.
Parents can also prepare for treating mild RSV at home, he says Anita PatelMD, a pediatric critical care physician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC.
She suggests caregivers stock up on paracetamol and ibuprofen (for children over 6 months) for pain and fever. You should also have a saline nasal aspirator, a reliable thermometer, a humidifier, and the phone numbers of your pediatrician, an emergency number, and nearby emergency centers.
Practice prevention techniques
The COVID-19 pandemic has made most of us experts at disease prevention, so put these skills to use to help prevent children from getting RSV or other diseases during this surge.
Although no vaccine for RSV has yet been approved in this country, doctors recommend staying up to date with other vaccines, including those for the flu and COVID-19, to help prevent the spread and severity of these viruses. Encourage your children to wash their hands frequently, cover their mouth or nose when sneezing or coughing, and dress up in public.
“Masks work very well against flu and RSV,” says Patel. “A simple surgical mask has saved me from catching both while caring for thousands of children.”