Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is peaking sooner than normal, causing concern among doctors, older adults and parents of children who’ve come into contact with the respiratory virus. While anyone can get RSV, and it typically goes away on its own in under two weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV results in about 58,000 hospitalizations and up to 300 deaths among children under 5 each year. For adults 65 and older, RSV causes 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths each year.
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As of mid-October, more than 7,300 tests came back positive for RSV, according to the CDC. That’s an 83% increase since late August — and some doctors are expecting that number to double in the coming weeks. Although the direct cause for the surge isn’t known, there may be several reasons at play.
COVID-19 has caused a disruption in flu seasons over the last couple of years, leading to fewer cases of the flu and RSV until recent months. One reason doctors think the new surge is happening is that we’ve been doing a great job of wearing masks, washing our hands and isolating when sick. Those practices may have decreased some of our immunity to other respiratory illnesses — especially younger children and infants, who would have otherwise had normal interactions with RSV.
“Our youngest age group has largely been sheltered from viruses due to the pandemic,” says family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD. “Now, as they’re returning to daycare and other pre-pandemic activities, they are being exposed to these viruses and haven’t developed the immunity to them that normally occurs.”
As RSV cases continue to climb, it becomes increasingly important to keep your children home when they get sick and treat their symptoms as they happen to decrease the impact made on pediatric hospitals.
But how do you treat RSV at home, and when should you take your child to the hospital for urgent medical care? Dr. Vyas explains a few ways you can comfort your sick child and when it’s time to seek medical assistance.
The best ways to comfort your child
Unlike the flu and COVID-19 (which have similar symptoms) there’s no vaccine for RSV and there’s no antiviral treatment. In most cases, RSV will go away on its own after a few days and up to two weeks after infection.
Hearing that there’s no treatment for RSV is a total downer. No one likes to feel sick. But as a parent, you can minimize the spread of RSV by getting your child tested, keeping them home when they’re sick and treating their symptoms as they occur. Here are a few things you can do to provide your child some comfort while you’re both waiting for the virus to subside:
Let them rest
This is perhaps the easiest thing your child can do when they have RSV. Make them comfortable and allow them to rest when they’re feeling tired. If you can, minimize their need to move up and down stairs, participate in physical activities or do chores around the house. Their immune system is working on fighting off RSV, so the least they can do is give their body time to recover.
“Rest is important,” says Dr. Vyas. “Prioritizing sleep, especially when they are ill, will allow for a quicker recovery, so maintain a proper nap and bedtime schedule.”
Give them plenty of fluids
Kids with RSV will often lose their appetite and eat less or not feel like eating at all. When this happens, it’s so important to keep them hydrated, especially if your child is an infant. Pedialyte® and other fluids with electrolytes are good to have, but in most cases, water is enough.
“Electrolyte solutions like Pedialyte and Gatorade® will help replenish minerals lost in perspiration and illness,” says Dr. Vyas. “Soft foods, broth and soups are also nourishing.”
Manage their fever
To reduce a fever, you’ll want to maintain a comfortable room temperature. Give your child blankets when they’re cold or have shivers and give them ice packs when they’re feeling hot. In most cases, a fever will break on its own, but you can also use over-the-counter fever reducers and pain medication to help manage the fever and reduce any body aches they’re having.
“It’s important to keep an eye on your child’s temperature,” advises Dr. Vyas. “Temperatures above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) are concerning and should be brought to the attention of your healthcare professional.”
Why you should stay home if you have RSV-like symptoms
If you or your child has RSV, you could be contagious for up to three to eight days. Some infants and people with weakened immune systems can even spread the virus for up to four weeks even when they’re not showing symptoms. In the most serious cases, RSV can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis. That’s why it’s important that you wait to take your child back to school or daycare until their symptoms have fully subsided. And it’s also important that you stay home from work and avoid gathering in public, too.
“RSV can also occur in adults,” notes Dr. Vyas. “It usually looks like the common cold, so pay particular attention to worrisome signs like trouble breathing or dehydration.”
When to seek urgent medical care
What makes RSV so dangerous is that it has the ability to inflame and clog your child’s airways. The smaller or younger your child is, the more at-risk they are for having problems breathing. If your child is struggling to breathe or begins wheezing, you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider or pediatrician and have them seen right away.
“Pay attention to your child’s breathing,” stresses Dr. Vyas. “If they’re having to use their neck muscles or their chest muscles to take breaths, or they’re breathing fast, or if their lips seem to look blue, seek medical attention immediately.”