If you have children or grandchildren, you’ve likely been hearing in recent weeks about RSV.
The illness, predominant during the winter months, will typically cause mild symptoms in both children and adults. Cough, congestion and fever are the most common signs of infection.
While most kids with RSV will recover in just a week or so, some cases may become serious and require hospitalization. With infants and the elderly, the virus can lead to more serious problems.
The symptoms of RSV, which usually arise just a few days after a person is infected, include:
- Runny nose
- Decrease in appetite
Corewell Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital has seen an increased number of RSV cases, with about 70 to 80 children hospitalized in recent weeks.
Outpatient care has also increased.
“Our emergency department normally sees about 150 patients a day,” Andrea Hadley, MD, section chief for pediatric hospital medicine at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said. “We are seeing close to 250 patients a day right now.”
It’s important to understand that RSV is a virus that’s around every year, with cases peaking in the winter.
Alongside the higher number of cases this year, however, the illnesses have been more severe, too.
“Kids were not exposed to (RSV) during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Hadley said. “So, they didn’t develop any immunity. The same goes for pregnant mothers and their babies.
“So, we’re seeing an increased volume due to kids who were never exposed.”
Patients ages 2 and under are most susceptible to the illness. This includes babies with underlying health conditions such as prematurity and illness.
“RSV can be very serious,” Dr. Hadley said. “What will get you in the hospital is trouble breathing, needing oxygen, leading all the way up to needing a breathing machine. And poor feeding and dehydration.”
If you notice your baby has difficulty breathing, or if they appear to be using their muscles to help them breathe, you should take them to the emergency department right away.
Other symptoms may be manageable via a visit to the pediatrician or a call to the doctor.
“Our hospital is over capacity right now,” Dr. Hadley said. “We have been at or exceeding capacity daily for the past few weeks and have had to make various adjustments to deal with the situation. For example, we have had to double up many patient rooms.”
‘Supporting the patient’
Another issue: Influenza is just starting to hit. Team members at the children’s hospital expect another surge of sick patients very soon.
Amid it all, nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists and their team members continue to provide the best possible care to patients.
“I want to thank the nursing and respiratory therapy staff,” Dr. Hadley said. “They are the cornerstone for these patients with RSV as the treatment is what we call supportive care.
“Our outstanding nursing and respiratory therapy staff provide the cornerstone of care for these patients when they are in the hospital, including suctioning of secretions from the nose and airway, sometimes special types of high flow oxygen, tube feedings or IV fluids,” Dr. Hadley said. “They are working so hard to provide excellent care despite how stretched all of the teams have been.
“There is no medicine we typically use to treat RSV—it’s all related to supporting the patient through the illness and keeping them comfortable while their body fights off the virus.
“It’s just a very scary time for families,” she said. “It makes children really sick.”
Matthew Sims, MD, PhD, director of infectious disease research for Corewell Health East, said his team members are seeing similar trends on the east side of the state.
“Always talk to your doctor or pediatrician if your child is sick, and listen to their advice,” Dr. Sims said. “And come and see us if your kids have a high fever or are non-responsive. We are here 24/7 to support the community.”
RSV can be a nasty virus, even life-threatening, he said.
Positive RSV and flu tests began showing up in early October, then significantly increasing in November.
“We saw almost 23 percent positivity rate on RSV tests in Southeast Michigan the first week in November,” he said.
Elderly patients and those with underlying respiratory conditions also faced increased risk.
“There are so many people with damaged lung conditions from having COVID-19,” Dr. Sims said. “We’re unsure how that will play out this year.”
Bottom line: The number of kids presenting with flu or RSV is significantly higher this year compared to last.
“We are never this full and never using other ICUs and boarding on other floors,” Dr. Sims said. “This is the first time … in the 16 years I have been here that I have seen numbers like this.”
To help protect yourself from RSV, you should avoid contact with anyone who is sick. It’s also important to wash your hands often and follow other safety precautions.
And while there is currently no vaccine for RSV, researchers are working on developing them.
“There are two vaccines making their way to the FDA soon for review,” Dr. Sims said. “My understanding is that these are for adults and hopefully they will be studied for kids, too.”
The growing body of evidence shows the benefits greatly outweigh risks when it comes to the pending vaccine, he said.