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RSV is 'particularly bad' this season, hospitals around the country warn

Respiratory syncytial virus is similar to cold or flu, but patients have trouble breathing and it can cause other severe infections.
/ Source: TODAY

The sniffles, coughing and sneezing echoing throughout classrooms and offices make it clear the cold and flu season is in full swing. Doctors have noticed one illness in particular, respiratory syncytial virus, has been spreading faster and causing more hospitalizations for children than usual.

“In the 35 years I’ve been doing this, I don’t know that I have ever seen RSV come on so strong so early in the season,” Dr. Dan McGee, a pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY. “Not to make people panic, but this year seems to be particularly bad.”

Reports from across the country reinforce what McGee has witnessed. Hospitals in New York, Kentucky, North Dakota, Louisiana and Ohio are all reporting more cases than usual.

Hospitals across the Chicago area are also reporting a spike in cases, NBC 5 Chicago reported. So many people are getting sick that emergency rooms are full and it takes hours just to be seen.

“RSV has arrived several weeks earlier than it usually does. We have seen many cases in our ICU and many children have been hospitalized,” Dr. Matthew Washam, medical director of epidemiology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, told TODAY. “It’s an atypical year for RSV in terms of severity.”

The experts are unsure why RSV season is more prevalent and serious this year. Some suggest that unusual and sudden changes in the weather — from warm to mild to cold, and from wintry mix to dry weather — could cause the virus to mutate.

Doctors urge parents to consider preventative measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick, to counter the virus. There is no vaccine or treatment for RSV. Adults 65 and over, and those who have chronic heart or lung disease, or a weakened immune system are vulnerable, too.

“There are no supplements or nutrients or anything like that you can use and prevent it from happening,” McGee said. “Don't expect antibiotics because antibiotics don't play any role in the treatment.”

RSV shares many symptoms with the flu, though children with flu would be more likely to complain of fever or muscle aches, though that's not always the case. Doctors can test to see if children have flu, RSV or rhinovirus, aka the common cold. While most cases of RSV are mild and resolve themselves in a few days or weeks, some children become very ill.

“If your child is working hard to breathe, that can be quite serious and it needs to be addressed,” McGee said.

Children with RSV can develop bronchiolitis, which is “a lower respiratory tract infection.”

“RSV can cause severe disease in young children with risk factors, such as chronic lung disease, heart conditions or who are immunocompromised,” Washam said.

Even if children are hospitalized for RSV, doctors can only help them breathe better and have no medications that effectively treat it.

“All we have in our toolbox are ways to help the child breathe easier until their body fights off infection,” McGee said.

Avoiding RSV is the best way to keep children from the hospital, though it can be difficult.

“It's the good old-fashioned preventative measures: Hand washing hygiene, avoiding those who are ill, ensuring that if anyone is ill that you're covering your cough, covering your sneezes,” Washam said. “Making sure that you're cleaning high-touched surfaces in the home and avoiding large crowds.”

Doctors encourage everyone to get a flu vaccine.

“The last thing in the world you want to do is have two different respiratory illnesses going on at the same time,” McGee said. “What you see commonly with the children who are ending up in the ICU is that they are battling several (viruses) at the same time.”