The risk of catching COVID-19 and/or the flu is increasing as winter continues. Additionally, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection has increased over the past few months. These raise a concern of triple-demic this winter.
The unusually high number of RSV infections reported already this year has stretched hospitals to their capacity and has left many parents concerned about RSV. Typically, RSV sends thousands of kids to the hospital in the fall and winter, but for the second year in a row, researchers have seen an unusual rise in cases that started in the summer. Here's what you need to know about the RSV infection and how to protect yourself and your family.
What is RSV?
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory tract virus that typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms in healthy adults. The virus spreads through sneezing and coughing. Its symptoms range from minor flu-like symptoms in healthy adults to potentially fatal pneumonia and bronchitis in children.
Who can be affected by RSV?
Everyone is susceptible to RSV, but infants and older adults are particularly at risk of severe complications that could be fatal.
Fast facts about RSV:
Did you know that RSV causes:
- the majority of annual pneumonia and bronchitis cases in children under the age of one in the U.S.
- nearly 2.1 million outpatient doctor visits for children younger than five
- between 58,000 and 80,000 hospitalizations of children under the age of five
- between 6,000 and 10,000 deaths in adults aged 65 and older
- between 100 and 300 deaths in children under the age of five
- between 60,000 and 120,000 hospitalizations of people aged 65 years and above
What is responsible for the RSV surge?
RSV infection is normal in the United States, but a spike in cases this early in the year appears unprecedented. Experts have blamed the surge on the COVID-19 pandemic. An expert said infants and young children protected from the common infection during the pandemic lockdowns are among the most vulnerable to RSV. They haven't been exposed before, and after more than two years of observing COVID-19 protocols such as masking, their immune systems might not have learned to fight the infection.
Why are infants and young children the most vulnerable to fatal symptoms of RSV?
Children younger than five are at risk of developing severe pneumonia and bronchitis because their lungs cannot effectively expel the increased bronchial production through coughing or sneezing. The secretion could eventually obstruct their airways, making it difficult to breathe.
What precautions can I take to avoid RSV?
A few precautions to prevent RSV infections include:
- consistent hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- using alcohol-based hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands if there is no water
- avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
- keeping children and yourself away from persons who have flu-like symptoms
- covering your coughs and sneezes
- cleaning and disinfecting surfaces frequently
- isolating yourself if you're sick
- drinking plenty of water
Is there an RSV vaccine?
There is currently no vaccine available for RSV. However, palivizumab (Synagis) injection can protect young infants born with specific lung or heart abnormalities. The baby will receive the medication once a month throughout the RSV season. Palivizumab, which provides monthly antibodies against RSV, is not a vaccine.
What are the treatment options for RSV?
Following an RSV infection diagnosis, you may receive supportive care, hospital care, or home remedies as the treatment.
- Supportive care: your doctor may prescribe over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) to reduce fever; they will also advise drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, and nasal saline drops and using suction to relieve a stuffy nose. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if there is also a bacterial infection.
- Hospital care: if the infection is severe, a patient may need hospital care. Hospital care may involve IV infusion, humidified oxygen, and a breathing machine. Unfortunately, bronchodilators and steroids are not effective treatments for RSV.
- Home remedies: relieve the symptoms of RSV infection with home remedies like drinking lots of water, breathing in moist air, rinsing nasal passages with saline drops, taking acetaminophen, and avoiding smoke from cigarettes.
When should I seek emergency care?
Your doctor may suggest home remedies if your baby has an RSV infection. But if your infant is struggling to breathe, seek medical attention immediately.
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