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RSV Cases Surging in Children Nationwide


An infant receives a breathing treatment | Image by Shutterstock

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Doctors are warning of increased respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases among children and infants. RSV is a common seasonal virus that causes cold-like symptoms but can cause serious illness in children and infants.

“The reason we are seeing a big surge now is during the pandemic we were masking, we were social distancing, and so you have all of these little kids that were never exposed and they’re all getting exposed all at once,” Dr. Celine Gounder, epidemiologist and editor-at-large at Kaiser Health News, told CBS Mornings.

The virus affects the upper respiratory system with a runny or stuffy nose and a cough or sore throat and is transmitted through direct contact, with most adults recovering in a week or two.

RSV is more severe for children and infants because pneumonia or bronchitis can develop when the virus moves to the lower airways into the bronchi or the lungs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, or inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year old in the U.S.

“It’s a virus that causes typically cold-like symptoms in children and adults,” explained Dr. Kimberly Giuliano with the Cleveland Clinic. “But in younger children, it can cause much more significant congestion and cough, high fevers, sometimes breathing and feeding difficulties and irritabilities.”

An estimated 58,000 children younger than 5 are hospitalized each year because of RSV infection, according to the CDC. One to two out of every 100 children younger than 6 months that contract RSV ends up hospitalized.

About 100-300 children younger than 5 die from RSV each year.

“One of the great things is, parents know their children the best,” said Dr. Andi Shane, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “If a child is having difficulty breathing that may be an indication for the child to see emergency department or urgent care.”

Georgia is one of the 33 states that have seen a spike in RSV cases among children, according to health officials. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is seeing two to three times the typical volume of pediatric patients with RSV.

Still, doctors say most children who get RSV recover at home with supportive care. Symptoms can usually be treated with pain relievers for fever and a vaporizer for congestion.

However, if a child’s symptoms are not improving, parents should not hesitate to call a doctor.

Researchers have been working to develop RSV vaccines, but none have been approved yet. A drug called palivizumab is used to prevent severe RSV illness in certain infants and children at high risk for severe disease, like infants born prematurely or with congenital heart disease or chronic lung disease.

“The drug can help prevent serious RSV disease, but it cannot help cure or treat children already suffering from serious RSV disease, and it cannot prevent infection with RSV,” the CDC said.

Gounder, with Kaiser Health News, noted there is no at-home RSV test. She said that the only way to identify an RSV case in children is through a nasal swab since there is “no way to know if it is RSV, COVID or the flu” based on symptoms alone.

“If you have those warning signs, I would definitely go in and get your child tested,” Gounder advised.    

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