As most American parents already know, cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common illness of childhood, are surging this year. Hospitals are filling up with babies and toddlers very ill with the easy-to-catch illness, which is coming back with a vengeance after lying low during the pandemic.
But RSV can be deceptive: It starts out looking like any other childhood cold, and for most kids who get it, RSV remains mild.
But severe cases do occur. Doctors aren’t even sure why one child has a mild case, while another requires hospital care. Each year, up to 80,000 U.S. children are hospitalized due to severe RSV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s different this year?
Dr. Jessica Ericson is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. She said the 2022-2023 RSV season seems to have started very early, with cases showing up in August and September.
“Also, what’s really different is the number of children who have these viruses and who are sick enough to be admitted to the hospital,” she said in a Penn State news release. These are “children who need oxygen and need to be admitted to the intensive care unit,” Ericson explained.
It’s most probably a “backlog” of sorts happening: Kids who normally would have contracted RSV over the past two seasons instead were sequestered at home and told to wear masks and distance themselves if they did mingle. “Now that we’ve stopped doing that, those children are now encountering RSV and other viruses for the first time,” Ericson noted.
There are signs and symptoms to look out for, but in the beginning, RSV presents with the humdrum signs of colds, flu, or COVID: runny nose, congestion, coughing and fever. Diarrhea, a lack of appetite and headaches can also appear.
All of that means that “there’s no way to tell at home or even in your doctor’s office if a child has RSV or influenza or COVID or some other virus, without a test,” Ericson said.
But because their respiratory passages are so much smaller than that of older kids or adults, very young kids and babies are much more likely to get a case that develops into something severe. When that happens, patients may require oxygen or even a ventilator to help them breathe.
“The elderly can sometimes have serious problems from RSV also, particularly the very elderly, cancer patients and adults who have immune system problems,” Ericson added. “But mostly, it’s small children.”
Again, most cases will just look like a cold, and then improve over time. In this situation, it probably doesn’t make sense to