What You Need to Know as RSV Season Peaks

By Evan Koch

What first appears as the common cold may be a sign of something more serious for infants, young children and older adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Common cold symptoms like a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, fever and irritability are also the first symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common contagious virus that can severely impact the most vulnerable populations.

“While RSV is quite common and manageable for many people, we know both infants and adults older than 65 who also have existing health complications are most at risk of developing serious illness,” said Marion Woerner MD, , a pediatrician with Memorial Hermann Medical Group Texas Medical Center Pediatrics.

“It’s really important to pay special attention to those symptoms in those populations, especially as we approach the height of RSV season,” Dr. Woerner said.

What is RSV?

RSV is an easily transmissible virus affecting the lungs and airways. It is typically seen in the spring, fall and winter, and tends to peak in January and February. In extreme cases, RSV can lead to lung infections like pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

Who is at risk of severe complications from RSV?

While most children will contract RSV by age 2 and experience mild infections that last a week or two, more than 57,000 children younger than age 5 are hospitalized with the respiratory virus each year, according to the CDC. More than 177,000 adults age 65 or older are hospitalized each year with complications from RSV.

According to the CDC, children most at risk for severe complications are:

  • Premature infants and infants
  • Children younger than 2 with chronic lung or chronic heart disease
  • Children with weakened immune systems
  • Children with neuromuscular disorders

Those older than 65 who have weakened immune systems, or chronic lung or chronic heart disease are also at risk of severe complications from RSV.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Symptoms usually include runny nose, fever, coughing, wheezing and loss of appetite. In infants, symptoms may also extend to irritability, decreased activity and sleep apnea, according to the CDC.

How is RSV transmitted?

The virus is typically spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and through shared use of common objects.

What steps can be taken to lower the chance of spreading RSV?

“Though RSV is very contagious and can develop into something much more severe, simple prevention steps like proper hand-washing and limiting contact with others while infected can significantly lower the chance of spreading the virus,” Dr. Woerner said.

In addition to frequent, proper hand-washing (at least 20 seconds) and reduced contact with those who are infected, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue (not your hand) and then dispose of the tissue.
  • Refrain from touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Keep common or shared spaces and surfaces disinfected and clean.
  • Stay home when sick.

When to seek care for RSV?

Millions of medical visits each year are attributed to RSV illness, many of which are considered mild. While there are many cases of RSV where symptoms can be easily managed, those who are at higher risk should be closely monitored and consult a medical professional at the first sign of symptoms.

Memorial Hermann Medical Group (MHMG) provides primary care for thousands of Greater Houston-area families. Convenient online scheduling for medical appointments close to home can be made through ScheduleNow or by calling 713.222.CARE (2273).

For those who have a health concern and are unsure what to do, call the free 24/7 Nurse Health Line at 713.338.7979 or 1.855.577.7979

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