What to know about RSV and how to protect against the virus

What to know about RSV and how to protect against the virus

Nov 21 2022

Along with the flu and COVID-19, RSV is causing health concerns and a surge in hospitalizations this year.

By: David Rzeszutko, MD

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a virus that can lead to respiratory illness, like bronchiolitis and pneumonia. According to the CDC, an estimated 58,000 – 80,000 children younger than five years old are hospitalized with RSV infections. In Michigan, we have seen a huge rise in RSV in the past week. All children’s hospitals in the state are at or beyond capacity. In speaking with the state epidemiologists, the trajectory of RSV, particularly at this time of year, is  unprecedented (a term we previously used only for COVID). Those who get a RSV infection usually show symptoms within four to six days and, in some cases, can go from mild symptoms to hospitalization in less than a week. While most recover in a week or two, RSV is especially serious for infants under six months old. Nationally, about four out of every 1,000 babies under 6 months old have been hospitalized so far this season. In the past 4 weeks, there has been a 7-fold increase in lab positive RSV cases. Many of the same measures we take to avoid the flu or COVID-19 can be used to fend off RSV.

Here are five preventive steps you can take to stop the spread of RSV:

1. Cough and sneeze into a tissue, not your hands

RSV symptoms include a runny nose, coughing, sneezing and wheezing. It can also be spread through droplets containing the virus when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve when coughing or sneezing. Throw the tissue in the trash afterward.

2. Wash your hands with soap and water

Washing your hands and your children’s hands for at least 20 seconds will help protect against RSV and other germs. If water and soap are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Do not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unclean hands.

3. Avoid close contact

People infected with RSV may become contagious a few days before they start showing symptoms. This virus is often spread through direct contact, so avoid kissing, hugging, sharing cups and eating utensils, and shaking hands.

4. Sanitize frequently touched surfaces

Disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched, as the virus can live for hours on hard surfaces like doorknobs, countertops, cell phones, toys or crib rails. Touching your eyes, nose or mouth after touching a contaminated object increases your chance of catching RSV.

5. Try to limit time spent in a childcare center or other potentially contagious settings

Nearly every child will get RSV by their second birthday. RSV is especially prevalent beginning in the fall and into the spring. If your infant or young child is high-risk, try to limit the amount of time they spend in daycare or at playgroups. And if you or your child show any cold-like symptoms, stay home from work, school, stores and other public areas to prevent spreading RSV.

While most people who catch RSV report mild symptoms and a quick recovery, some infants and even older adults are at a greater risk for severe RSV infections. Some people with RSV infection, especially those in higher risk age ranges should be very wary about early signs to need to be evaluated. Infants that are noted to display signs of difficult breathing: increased breathing rate, audible wheeze, sometimes we can see retractions of chest wall, if young ones cannot stay hydrated or eat due to inability to breath (watch how many wet diapers child is making or is mucous membrane around mouth moist). There is no vaccine against RSV yet, but scientists are working hard to develop one. If you are concerned about your child’s risk for severe RSV infection, talk to their healthcare provider. Take extra care and follow these steps to protect against RSV and other illnesses, and keep your and your loved ones healthy.

About the Author: David C. Rzeszutko, MD, is the medical director for health plan quality for Priority Health.  In this role he is responsible for working with the case management team to identify and support members who require additional support as they navigate the health care system and improve their health. Dr. Rzeszutko maintains his current role on the staff of the Spectrum Health Medical Group in the areas of adult internal medicine and pediatrics. He is also a clinical assistant professor, department of pediatrics and human development at the College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University.

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