Dangerous childhood illness poses health risks in adults

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If you’re over the age of 2, you’ve probably had respiratory syncytial virus, RSV for short, at some point in your life. RSV is a common virus of the upper respiratory tract that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, so you probably didn’t realize you had it. 

In young children, older adults and people with chronic health conditions, RSV can lead to serious illnesses and even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV puts more than 57,000 children under age 5 in the hospital each year. The number of annual hospitalizations more than triples to 177,000 in adults. About 14,000 adults die from RSV yearly.

Now that we are in the midst of the cold, flu and virus season, here are some key things you should know about RSV:

1. RSV peaks during the colder months of the year.

There are many viruses circulating during this time of year and we always see an uptick in RSV cases in the fall, winter and spring. 

2. RSV symptoms mimic other common viruses.

Initial RSV symptoms are pretty nondescript. They include congestion, runny nose, dry cough, sore throat, low-grade fever, headache and wheezing. Most people think they have a cold or the flu. If you spike a fever, experience shortness of breath or have severe wheezing, you’ll need to see your doctor.

3. There is no specific treatment for RSV.

Unlike with the flu, there’s no treatment for RSV. Antibiotics and antiviral medications won’t help and there isn’t a vaccine to prevent it. I usually recommend drinking plenty of fluids to thin secretions, acetaminophen for a fever and patience. Mild cases of the virus usually run their course in one to two weeks.

4. RSV can cause serious illnesses.

RSV can lead to serious lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia because the virus causes secretions in the lungs. Young babies, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems or chronic illnesses such as lung or heart disease can develop more serious infections because they can’t compensate for the mucus or fluid in their lungs. In young children, their small airways narrow, making it hard for them to breathe. Adults may have difficultly coughing up the thick mucus. If hospitalization is required, patients may receive supportive care and be placed on oxygen or ventilation to help improve breathing. 

5. Good hand hygiene can prevent RSV. 

RSV is spread through coughing, sneezing and coming into contact with surfaces that have the RSV virus on them and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. To prevent RSV, wash your hands often, cough and sneeze into your elbow, avoid sick people, don’t share towels or toothbrushes and clean high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops. 

Jonathan Parsons is the executive vice chair for Clinical Operations in the Department of Internal Medicine, director of the Asthma Center and division director in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

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