What is respiratory syncytial virus?

Cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are to skyrocket in the United States right now. The virus has caused an influx of children into pediatric hospitals, where some say they are so excited that they have children waiting in emergency room hallways to be seen.

“Our system is absolutely overwhelmed with kids who have RSV,” says John C. Brancato, MD, division chief of emergency medicine at Connecticut Children’s. RSV cases began to rise in late August, according to data from the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention (CDC) and have recently skyrocketed. The latest data shows that a whopping 15% of tests done for RSV in the United States are positive right now.

“Because of the great hygiene we had during the pandemic, many people have not had RSV for the past few years,” says Daniel GanjianMD, pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

But what is RSV, exactly, and what symptoms should you watch out for? Here’s what you need to know.

What is the RSV virus?

RSV is a common respiratory virus that typically causes cold symptoms, according to the CDC. Most people recover from RSV within a week or two, but it can be serious, especially in infants and the elderly. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children under one year of age in the United States, according to the CDC.

RSV is spread in different ways, depending on the CDC. These include when an infected person coughs or sneezes; when you receive virus droplets from a cough or sneeze in your eyes, nose or mouth; when you touch a surface infected with the virus and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands; and when you have direct contact with the virus, such as kissing someone with RSV.

RSV symptoms in children and adults

People usually develop symptoms of RSV within four to six days of being infected, the CDC said. These symptoms can include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decreased appetite
  • To cough
  • To sneeze
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

Of note, according to the CDC: Symptoms usually appear in stages. “Things are usually the worst around the third or fourth day and then get better,” says Dr. Ganjian. In young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity and difficulty breathing, according to the CDC.

What does RSV look like in adults?

It depends. “In healthy adults, RSV tends to be more like a cold,” says Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. “You usually wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from other respiratory viruses.”

But, in frailer older people, RSV can cause a lower respiratory infection, says Dr. Russo. “It would cause shortness of breath and possibly wheezing,” he says.

RSV treatments

Unfortunately there is no special treatment for RSV. “Treatment is primarily symptomatic,” says Dr. Russo.

According to CDCincluding:

  • Manage fever and pain with over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent yourself from becoming dehydrated.

If you feel stuffy with RSV, Dr. Russo suggests taking a decongestant like DayQuil or NyQuil. (Note: Young children can’t take any of these drugs.) And, if you have an underlying lung condition like asthma, he suggests checking your blood oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter. . “It can help you know how you are doing if you feel uncomfortable,” he says.

If RSV becomes severe — and it can — you may need to be given albuterol (an inhaled medication that relaxes the smooth airways of the lungs), oxygen, or both, says Dr. Ganjian. He recommends taking young children to see a medical professional if they seem to have trouble breathing, if they breathe faster than usual, or if their nose flares out when they breathe, a sign of difficulty breathing. to breathe.

In adults, difficulty breathing, wheezing, or a constant pulse oximeter reading of 94 or less, especially if it seems to be decreasing, should prompt you to seek medical attention, says Dr. Russo.

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