Madison, Wis. – In the first few weeks of October, more than 350 pediatric patients at UW Health Kids tested positive for the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
This is three times the number of cases confirmed in 2021 during the same time frame. In 2020, not only were there no cases confirmed in that timeframe, there were no cases of RSV confirmed throughout September and October.
While most cases do not require interventions or hospitalization, RSV is contributing to a very busy time at UW Health Kids. Currently, RSV hospitalizations make up approximately 10 percent of the patients admitted to the American Family Children’s Hospital, according to Dr. Joshua Ross, chief medical officer, American Family Children’s Hospital, and pediatric emergency medicine physician, UW Health Kids.
“We are seeing a record number of patients in our pediatric emergency department, with most coming in due to upper respiratory illnesses like RSV,” Ross said.
RSV is a respiratory virus that presents as a common cold for most adults but young children, especially those younger than 18 months, can have more extreme symptoms and develop bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation in the lungs that makes it harder for them to breathe. Common RSV symptoms include a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, congestion and fever.
This significant spike in RSV cases is being reported in Wisconsin and northern Illinois as well as across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is a concerning trend because while RSV is common, it normally peaks in the winter, so this early spike in cases, along with COVID-19 and influenza, is making health systems very busy, according to Ross.
“Not only have we likely not peaked yet, but we’re seeing more severe RSV cases, resulting in more interventions, management and sometimes hospitalizations,” Ross said.
With the number of respiratory viruses circulating and the limited exposure kids have had to them during the pandemic, many children are getting sick for the first time as their bodies build their immune systems, according to Ross.
“The good news is many of these kids can get better at home and do not need to be admitted to the hospital,” he said.
A combination of proper mucus suction, hydration and anti-fever medication are all ways to treat RSV at home, according to Ross. For young children, nasal suction devices should be used to make sure airways are clear.
“Pedialyte and other electrolyte-containing rehydration drinks are good alternatives for young children if milk or formula are not appealing to them while they are sick,” Ross said.
Acetaminophen or ibuprofen should be used for fever reduction, according to Ross.
“We do not recommend over-the-counter cough and cold medications to treat respiratory illnesses,” he said. “They can cause more complications for children.”
If symptoms emerge, parents should call the child’s primary care doctor to seek advice prior to visiting urgent care or the emergency department, Ross said.
“Calling your primary care doctor first helps you get the timely advice you need, and it can also help reduce crowding at urgent care clinics and emergency departments,” he said.
There are a few symptoms that indicate parents should seek immediate medical attention, Ross said.
“If your child is struggling to breathe and suctioning their nose is not helping, you should seek medical care,” he said. “Warning signs include children using their neck or shoulders to breathe, young babies flaring their nostrils to breathe or blue color changes in a child’s face.”
To prevent the spread of RSV, several of the methods used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can also be employed to stop the spread of this seasonal virus, according to Ross.
“For respiratory illnesses, masking, distancing and staying home if you feel sick or have a fever, are still powerful tools,” he said.
Ross also encourages frequent hand washing, healthy foods, proper sleep habits and hydration to prevent illness.