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Boy, 2, diagnosed with 3 viruses at once after weeks of high fever, hallucinations

Wilder Jackson's illness came as the country is facing a surge kids being hospitalized due to viral infections.
/ Source: TODAY

Already worried when her 2-year-old son’s temperature spiked to 105 degrees, Ciara Jackson got really scared when he started hallucinating, convinced he was outside when he was actually sitting next to her on the couch. Jackson turned to the internet hoping to find a benign explanation for why her little boy’s temperature was so high when he had no other symptoms.

“Your mind jumps to worst case scenarios,” Jackson, 28, told TODAY. “Google was not helpful. When I looked up fevers without other symptoms, leukemia came up.”

The Jackson family.
The Jackson family.Courtesy Ciara Jackson

Wilder’s high fever came as the hospitals are filling up with kids hit hard by respiratory viruses, catching many health care workers off guard, as the surge is much earlier in the season than usual. Respiratory syncytial virus, aka RSV, is driving much of the illnesses, but pediatric flu hospitalizations are also rising, even though the historical start of peak flu season is a month away. Cases of enterovirus and adenovirus are also part of the wave.

One reason for the increase is that many of these viruses had been kept at bay by COVID prevention measures for the past two years, so now younger kids, who would've normally built up some immunity over the previous few seasons, are being exposed to a host of viruses all at once, TODAY previously reported.

“Reduced population immunity to circulating respiratory illnesses, particularly among young children who may never have had exposure or been vaccinated, could bring about a robust return of flu and other respiratory viruses, like RSV,” Lynnette Brammer, lead of the Domestic Influenza Surveillance Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News via email.

A fever every weekend

The Jackson family’s travails started the second week of September, when they returned from a visit to Disney World. Wilder got sick and tested positive for the flu. “That ran its course, but almost every weekend since, he’s been running a fever,” his mom told TODAY.

The week of Oct. 24, Wilder’s temperature started to rise again. Jackson reached out to the boy’s pediatrician, who suggested treating him with Tylenol or Motrin.

By Saturday, Wilder’s temperature shot up to 104. The family took him to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. But by the time the family got there, the boy’s temperature had dropped. Doctors told the family that Wilder just had a virus, and he’d be fine.

The Jacksons had just returned from Disney World when Wilder got sick.
The Jacksons had just returned from Disney World when Wilder got sick.Courtesy Ciara Jackson

The next night around 11 p.m., Jackson took her son’s temperature and was shocked to see the thermometer read 105. What really scared Jackson was her son’s mental state.

“He started having fever dreams,” she said. “We were on the couch, and he said he wanted to go inside. He started talking about getting away from the dinosaurs. He was looking at spots on the ceiling and kept calling, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,’ like he was having extreme paranoia.”

The family rushed Wilder to the emergency room at Dayton Children’s Hospital. There, doctors tested him for rhinovirus, enterovirus and adenovirus. He was positive for all three.

“I was very shocked,” Jackson said. “Of course, I started to wonder where he would’ve have gotten them and if there was anything I could’ve done to prevent it.”

Especially worrisome to Jackson was her son’s high white blood cell count, which she feared could indicate something more serious. “When the doctors came back with the elevated white blood cell count, I worried it might be leukemia,” Jackson said. “That was scary.”

Doctors suggested that the high temperatures were the result of the boy’s body battling three viruses at once. Jackson was relieved when tests came back negative for cancer and bacterial infections. A high white blood cell count is most often due to the "body ... fighting off infection or inflammation," according to Cleveland Clinic.

It's not clear how often children are infected with multiple viruses at once because it's not something that's typically tested for, Brody said. “It’s only the rare child (like Wilder) who is so sick as to be hospitalized, who even gets more fully tested," she added.

"The body was doing what it was supposed to"

At the hospital, Wilder was given fluids intravenously. After that, “he didn’t look super sick,” said Dr. Ann Burke, a hospitalist who oversees pediatric residency training at Dayton Children’s.

 Still, “a fever of 105 makes us worry that we need to find out what is wrong,” Burke said. “But the great news is that, in an otherwise healthy kid, temperatures won’t get higher. In the case of Wilder, the body was doing what it was supposed to do and fighting infection.”

Wilder and his parents.
Wilder and his parents.Courtesy Ciara Jackson

Most pediatricians will tell families to bring their child to the emergency department if their child spikes a fever in the middle of the night and they are worried. And that’s especially true if the child has a high fever and is “talking a little funny,” Burke said.

Burke and her team opted to keep Wilder in the hospital until his fever came down and stayed down, the following Wednesday, about three days. “Now he’s acting like a normal 2-year-old,” Jackson said.

 The family has a follow-up appointment with a rheumatologist, just in case there is an underlying issue causing the fevers.

There is no hard and fast rule as to what temperature should send kids to the emergency room, said Dr. Erica Brody, a pediatrician at the Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine. If a child has a fever and other concerning symptoms, such as lethargy, that might tip the scales in favor of an ER visit.

In general, a temperature of 104 or higher concerns pediatricians; “105 is a pretty big number,” Brody said, adding that a high temperature that persists for more than five days would require a work-up to determine the cause. Doctors would need to rule out meningitis, autoimmune issues and bacterial infections like strep, she said.

Jackson’s advice to parents worried about their kids is to “trust your instincts. You know your kid better than anyone else does. It’s normal to catch viruses this time of year, but if you notice any concerning behaviors, go to the hospital.”