Health & Science

Child respiratory infections are surging — here’s what parents need to know

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Children across the country have been coming down with respiratory infections like RSV at alarming rates in recent months — filling several hospitals’ emergency rooms and pediatric units to capacity. Pediatricians are reporting an unusually high spike in the number of cases of RSV for this time of year, and the virus has been appearing in a wider than usual age range of children. 

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that causes symptoms such as a runny nose and coughing. Symptoms usually go away after a week or two, but babies with RSV may develop inflammation in the small airways of their lungs — a condition known as bronchiolitis. This condition can persist beyond a couple of weeks and require more intensive treatment from a pediatrician.

Most children will be infected with RSV at some point by the age of two, and will typically be reinfected multiple times as they age. The vast majority of cases are mild, but premature babies and infants under 6 months, as well as children with other health conditions, can be at higher risk for developing more severe cases or complications like bronchiolitis or pneumonia. 

Why are respiratory viruses surging?

Infectious disease experts believe that there are a couple of compounding factors at play in the surge of RSV and other respiratory viruses this fall. Many children returned to school this year with more relaxed COVID-mitigation efforts like masking and social distancing. This increased exposure to other children is one factor causing the spike in respiratory illness. 

The other major contributor to the rise in RSV cases is the lack of exposure to viruses that many children experienced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because of safety measures like social distancing and virtual schooling. Children who would have otherwise picked up RSV and other illnesses in their early years are being exposed later in their childhood without the immune protections from previous infections that children their age might typically have. (Typically, having had RSV before doesn’t result in much protection anyway; however, the first infection is usually the most serious.)

What can parents do to protect their kids?

Much like with COVID-19, the advice from pediatricians is to teach kids about germs and how to prevent spreading them. Washing hands frequently, coughing and sneezing into tissues or the inside of the elbow, and keeping distance from others when possible are all good ways to prevent the spread of RSV. You can check the CDC website to assess RSV risk in your area. Experts don’t generally recommend isolation to avoid RSV since it’s extremely common and very contagious, so kids are expected to get it at some point (often multiple times). The exception may be for preterm babies, very young infants, or other children at increased risk of serious infection.

If your child becomes infected with RSV, expect them to be contagious for three to eight days, and showing symptoms of the illness for up to two weeks. A pediatrician may recommend ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and advise you to watch for any severe or persistent symptoms. The virus that causes RSV can live for several hours on surfaces, so sanitizing areas like doorknobs, devices, and other high-touch surfaces can help keep it from spreading.

If your child develops difficulty breathing, contact their doctor immediately. You can watch for signs like their stomach or ribs moving more than usual as they breathe, or their nostrils flaring open as they breathe in. Infants may make a grunting sound when they breathe.

There is not yet a vaccine for RSV, but there is a monoclonal antibody treatment available for those who are most vulnerable to complications from the virus. Doctors recommend the flu shot for children to prevent more severe symptoms from respiratory illnesses. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.