Local doctors alert parents to rise in illness that mimics common cold

Health News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — There’s another illness lurking this cold and flu season that’s just as common, but not as often heard about. 

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, typically shows up in young children between October and March, and Savannah medical experts say now is the peak time for the illness.

“Over the last month, RSV has been one of the most common respiratory infections that we’ve seen in the hospital,” Dr. Michael Bossak, Memorial Health’s director of pediatric hospitalist medicine, told News 3. 

“We’ve had about a 30-percent positivity rate for our testing, which is a very high rate at this time of year,” Bossak said.

Dr. Ben Spitalnick, a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates of Savannah, says cases of the “aggressive” and contagious respiratory virus are something he’s seen a lot of in his office recently.

“We’re seeing many cases a day, we’re admitting some to the hospital every week, and unfortunately, we’re seeing kids back again and again,” he said, adding that one of his young patients has been sick in the hospital for about three weeks now with RSV. 

While RSV can impact both adults and children, it’s the youngest kids that are hit the hardest, and although it’s rare, the illness can sometimes turn deadly. 

Premature infants, smaller babies and those with a history of heart or lung issues are especially susceptible.

“In the youngest population, it can lead to bronchitis,  pneumonia and hospitalization,” Spitalnick said.

Across the United States, he told News 3, about a half a million emergency room visits over the next year will be because of RSV infection, and about 50 to 100,000 babies will end up admitted to the hospital.

RSV symptoms to recognize

RSV symptoms mimic those of a common cold, which can make it hard to tell when it’s actually RSV, experts say. 

While a common cold normally has severe symptoms lasting two or three days and typically gets better after a couple of weeks, Spitalnick says RSV can produce a frothy, runny nose in patients, as well as wheezing or a barking cough.

Since it’s a respiratory infection, it’s more likely to cause labored breathing and the need for more oxygen.

It can also make those infected more vulnerable to bacterial infections and pneumonia, according to Spitalnick. 

Medical experts say the smaller a person and their set of lungs are, the worse it can impact their health as mucus fills the lungs, making it more difficult to breathe.

In some cases, RSV can lead to apnea, which is when the patient stops breathing altogether.

“To an older child aged 2 to 5, it’s like having a bad cold, but it’s very severe for those under age 2, very severe for infants,” Spitalnick said.

How does it spread? 

RSV spreads easily, and it does so through contact with an infected person, Bossak said. 

“Usually through mucus, a runny nose or [someone] coughing on you,” he said.

It infects other people via droplets entering the body through the eyes, nose or mouth.

“Most kids are getting it from siblings who came home with it from daycare or from school who are not as ill, but the smaller they are, the worse off that they are,” he said.

How is it diagnosed?

It’s often diagnosed by a doctor or pediatrician, who may run a test via nasal swab, Spitalnick said.

“Sometimes, a daycare will put up a notice saying there has been a child with RSV in the classroom,” he said.

He added that just because there has been exposure to RSV doesn’t mean that parents need to get their child checked out by a medical professional if they’re feeling fine.

“But if your child is having not just cold symptoms, but respiratory distress, breathing heavy, coughing a lot, not able to sleep, decreased appetite, those are all good reasons to get checked by your doctor, and they may or may not need to do an RSV test,” Spitalnick said. 

How is RSV treated?

Medical experts say that treating RSV involves addressing its symptoms. 

It’s a virus, so antibiotics won’t work as treatment unless another infection develops.

“What we do is called supportive care,” Spitalnick said. “Fluids, secretion management, sometimes oxygen, and sometimes your doctor may indicate breathing treatments or steroids, but in general, supportive care, push fluids, and it’s a very slow process,” he said. 

Bossak noted that most kids who get RSV can be treated at home with over-the-counter medication. 

He also mentioned using a nasal syringe and simply monitoring the illness can help, and concerned parents can always take the child to a hospital or doctor if the symptoms persist or worsen.

Doctors recommend good hygiene practices, as well. 

“It is a virus, so it will run its course, fortunately, and for most people, that will take seven to 10 days for the cough and congestion to go away,” Bossak said.

“The fever usually runs its course in the first couple of days, and the respiratory distress usually gets best by day three to day five, and so after that people are starting to feel better,” he said.

Why don’t we hear about RSV as often as the cold or flu?

Spitalnick says RSV may not be heard about as often, despite being quite common, because the vaccine for it isn’t very common or widely used.

“There is a very specialized vaccine, it’s uncommon and only reserved for the most premature and the most fragile infants,” he said. 

“The general population doesn’t get immunized for RSV, and the general population — adults, kids over age 5 — generally don’t have that bad of an illness, so we don’t usually test older people.”

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