- Cases of RSV have increased in the US in the past couple of weeks, according to the CDC.
- While the disease tends to peak in November, hospitals are overwhelmed with patients.
- Three parents talked about having their young children in the hospital with RSV.
Ashleigh Steen’s 3-week-old daughter has been in a Delaware hospital with RSV since October 16, when she started struggling to breathe. Because the pediatric intensive care unit and ER were already full of RSV cases, the baby, whose blood-oxygen level was in the 80s — 95 or above is normal — was admitted to the newborn intensive care unit. She’s been intubated and on a ventilator for six days, Steen told Insider.
“It’s by far the most stressful situation I’ve ever been in, because I’m so scared for my daughter. I know she’s getting the best possible care — it has just been hard to see such slow improvement,” Steen said.
Steen isn’t alone. A surge in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is overwhelming pediatric hospitals in the US. Typically restricted to the winter months, RSV cases tend to peak in November and retreat in April, Dr. Rebecca Fisk, a pediatrician at Lenox Hill Hospital at Northwell Health in New York, told Insider. But this wave of RSV, which began early in the summer, has taken hold in the past few weeks with unexpected severity, said Dr. J. Wes Ulm, a clinician, medical researcher, and bioinformatics expert at Harvard Medical School Hospital System in Massachusetts.
RSV is so common in early childhood, it’s almost a rite of passage, said Ulm. But according to the CDC, one to two out of 100 children under the age of 6 months will experience a severe RSV infection that results in bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the airways, or pneumonia, an lung infection. Here’s what you need to know about the danger signs of RSV.
When to head to the hospital
RSV typically presents like the common cold, but the younger the child — especially those under 2 years old — the higher the likelihood of serious illness requiring hospitalization, said Fisk. Infants with the virus might experience sneezing, coughing, wheezing, a runny nose, poor feeding, and decreased appetite, with or without a fever, said Fisk.
If a baby under 6 months old is having trouble feeding and not staying hydrated — they’re not wetting diapers in an eight- to 12-hour period — it’s a good idea to call your pediatrician for guidance first, said Fisk, but if your child is having significant breathing issues, go to an emergency room.
When Alexis Ruby’s 1-week-old son began coughing and experiencing congestion, her pediatrician advised nasal suction and saline drops. But two days later, he wouldn’t wake up for his feedings and appeared to be in respiratory distress, Ruby said. He was rushed to Children’s Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta, admitted to the NICU, and put on a ventilator. He tested positive for RSV.
The 3-week-old is still hospitalized. Ruby’s 2-year-old daughter has RSV, too, but her symptoms are much less severe, so she’s being treated at home, which Fisk said is normal.
In older children and adults, RSV symptoms are very similar but often milder and may include a headache, sore throat, or tiredness, she said. Usually, these cases don’t result in serious complications.
How to minimize the risk of RSV
Tara Shield’s 1-year-old son was hospitalized in mid-October at Cohen Children’s Medical Center with his second RSV infection. A severe asthmatic, he was exposed to the virus by his 3-year-old sister, whose symptoms were limited to a fever and bad cough. Within 48 hrs, the Wantagh, New York, resident said her son started retracting — heavy, deep breathing where the ribs are visible — and wheezing badly.
Since he’d been admitted to the ICU for RSV at 4 months old — requiring CPAP treatment — Cohen was extra cautious this time around. After consulting with her doctor and seeing no improvement in the next 12 hours, she headed to the ER, where the boy received oxygen and back-to-back albuterol breathing treatments for five days before returning home, where he’s still recovering.
According to Fisk, a person can get RSV multiple times. That’s why it’s important to practice good hand hygiene, cover up when coughing and sneezing, and disinfect high-contact areas, she said. But for the highest-risk group — kids under 2 — it can be really hard to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets. That’s why parents should keep sick children at home — that runny nose could be RSV. And children should be vaccinated for COVID and the flu as soon as possible, Fisk said.
While there are no firm answers to explain the current spike in viruses like RSV, rhinovirus, influenza, and enterovirus, Ulm said research points to a link to COVID-19. A small study published last month in the journal Radiology found that one year after children contracted COVID-19, they exhibited a 25% reduction in their lungs’ capacity to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream. Research has suggested that 75% of American children have contracted COVID-19, and regardless of severity, may be dealing with diminished respiratory and immune capacity, making it harder to withstand further lung infections like RSV, said Ulm.