How Worried Should You Be About RSV Right Now?
RSV is reportedly on the rise. But excessive worrying can also take a toll on your immune system.
In June the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an advisory alerting people to “…increased interseasonal respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) activity across parts of the Southern United States.” In other words: RSV was on the rise, and a time of year that it’s not usually ascendant (i.e. summer).
No doubt, if you have a young toddler, you’re familiar with this common virus and its hallmark cold-like symptoms (think coughs, soggy nose, fever). And according to the CDC, most babies catch RSV before they blow out two candles on their birthday cake. But while some cases of RSV can present as a cold, the virus is also the top cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies under 12 months. So yeah, parents tend to worry about RSV. And perhaps this year, even more so.
Here’s what you need to know to keep you and your family informed, and as safe as can be.
Do I Need To Worry About RSV?
Contracting this virus is common, but not necessarily severe, for most small children. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shared, premature babies, or those with lung or heart conditions, may be more susceptible to serious cases of RSV; hospitalization may be necessary. If you suspect your baby might have caught the virus, observe their symptoms; consider any breathing issues or dehydration a potential sign to contact the pediatrician (though you can obviously call early to run any symptoms by your doctor for an opinion — don’t be bashful here). There’s no cure, but most cases resolve at home within a week or two.
Why Is RSV Spiking Right Now?
We’re likely looking at one of the many ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic: “Cases of RSV are on the rise in young children in the U.S. currently this spring and summer 2021,” says Alyssa Silver, M.D., pediatric hospitalist at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. “The typical RSV season is from October to March, however, since the appearances of Covid-19, likely due to alterations in human behavior, travel, etc., the typical seasonality of RSV has also been altered.”
So why might we be seeing a summer surge in reported cases? Well, we all took off our masks and started playing together at the same time, which manes lots of things spread, from the common cold to RSV. “As restrictions in many places have been lifted in terms of covid precautions — mask wearing, vigilance with hand hygiene — which are also measures that will help prevent the spread of RSV, any viruses, like RSV, are easier to spread than when universal masking guidelines were in place,” says Silver.
Are RSV & Covid-19 Related?
They’re different viruses that are spread in some of the same ways. “RSV and Covid are two unrelated viruses, but they are both spread through droplets — and touch for RSV,” Michael J. Smith, professor of pediatrics with Duke University School of Medicine, tells Romper. “It's not surprising that we did not see much of a typical RSV season this year while everyone was masking and social distancing. As society began to open up, incidence of both infections has increased.”
What Can I Do To Protect My Kids Against RSV?
Being cautious and observant can go a long way, both to help prevent RSV and stop its spread. “As with any other respiratory virus, we know that infants and children, the most vulnerable being very young infants — none of whom are eligible currently to be vaccinated against Covid-19 — can be co-infected with both RSV and Covid-19,” says Silver. “The same measures that we take to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in others will help prevent the spread of RSV.” This includes thorough hand-washing — disinfecting surfaces, mask-wearing, and distancing can also help protect kids, Silver says. Smith tells Romper that “masking can prevent spread of most respiratory viruses, not just covid.”
The medical community is on high alert for signs their vulnerable patients — infants who are premature or who have certain medical conditions, typically heart or lung problems — may be developing RSV. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently put out a statement suggesting that distribution of a prophylactic medicine called Synagis may need to start earlier this year in areas with high rates of RSV. You should discuss that treatment option with your healthcare providers if you’re concerned about RSV. (It’s crucial to remember, as Smith tells Romper, that “in most children, RSV is a mild respiratory illness.”)
So what does this mean for the future? It means doctors don’t know exactly how this will all play out. “I think the normal seasonality of RSV has been disrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which makes it harder to predict what the seasonality may look like in current times and in the upcoming year,” says Silver. For now, it’s key to remain focused on what you can do: Keep up those 20-second hand-scrubs, be mindful of others with potential illnesses, consider masking and distancing, and keep your healthcare providers informed of any symptoms.
Alyssa Silver, M.D., pediatric Hospitalist at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore
Dr. Michael J. Smith, professor of pediatrics, Duke University School of Medicine