For about a week, the Lee family passed around a bug and everyone had sore throats and croupy-sounding coughs.
When 13-month-old Nicson's fever spiked, his mom, Jaclyn Lee said she took him to the pediatrician who thought he simply had a cold.
At first, his illness seemed mild with only a light cough and his fever went down the next day. A few days passed uneventfully. But last Monday morning, when Lee checked on the boy she became worried. He was lethargic and the color had drained from his face.
“He just looked pitiful,” Lee, 40, of Jacksonville Beach, Florida told TODAY. “I thought, ‘I'm going to take him to the doctor if he doesn't start moving around,’ and when I checked on him, he hadn’t moved at all.”
Nicson was born at 27 weeks and had spent 119 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. Until a few weeks ago, he still used oxygen at night. The way Nicson looked last week reminded Lee of when his oxygen levels were too low.
“You could hear some gurgling in his throat because of all the fluid that was in his lungs,” she explained.
She rushed him to the emergency room and doctors confirmed her suspicion. Nicson has a viral infection called RSV, respiratory syncytial virus, that usually spreads from October to April each year. Almost every child contracts RSV prior to age 2 and most of the time it’s a mild illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But for some children, like Nicson, it’s dangerous. The CDC says for children younger than 1 year old, RSV is the number one reason for bronchiolitis, an infection of the airways, and pneumonia.
For more than a week, he has been in the intensive care unit at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, tethered to an ECMO machine that helps his body pump blood and bring in oxygen.
“He’s still in critical condition, so they're just still watching him,” Lee said. “His blood pressure has been more stable.”
As a mom of five children, of whom Nicson is the youngest, Lee had heard of RSV before. Although she knew some children can have a worse case, since Nicson has been hospitalized with the virus, she wants to share her story to help others learn about the risks.
“I hope people will be more aware that RSV is going around and it is not something that is just like terrible cough or a little cold,” she said. “It if it RSV, it can be life-threatening.”
Experts remain unsure why some children develop RSV so seriously, Dr. Mobeen Rathore, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Wolfson, said.
“It’s almost a rite of passage that children get this infection,” he told TODAY. “We don’t know why some kids are so much worse than others. Certain children who may have underlying conditions might have it more severely.”
It often acts like the common cold, which is rhinovirus, or the flu. Doctors can only diagnose RSV with proper tests, which is why Rathore recommends parents take their children to a doctor when they are showing these kinds of symptoms.
“It doesn’t matter what the virus is," Rathore said. "If the child is not well you need to seek medical attention. Sometimes these kids will get sick very fast.”
Getting the flu vaccine for children can also help with diagnosis. Since the flu and RSV occur around the same time of year, if a child has been vaccinated for the flu, doctors treating a sick child can usually rule it out, Rathore said.
He also encourages sick people to stay at home and use good hygiene practices, such as hand washing and coughing into the elbow, for example.
When children do get sick with RSV, the treatment is just monitored maintenance care because there are no specific therapies for the virus. Children hospitalized for RSV are given fluids and any assistance needed for breathing.
“There’s no treatment for it,” Rathore said. “It is one of those illness that if we had a vaccine it would be great. You know so many kids are going to get it.”
Nicson will likely need to be in the hospital for a few more weeks.
Lee hopes that others will become more aware of good hygiene practices during cold and flu season to protect others.
"It's scary," Lee said. "Just be more cautious about washing your hands."