RSV Is Surging In Kids Early This Year: Here’s What To Know

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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Remember back in 2020, when most of us were social distancing like mad and wearing masks everywhere we went? I remember everyone I know saying, “Wow, I haven’t been sick in months.” Being isolated wasn’t fun, but not getting sick sure was, huh?

Well, things are different now. While many of us are still social distancing and wearing masks, some of us have also let our guard down in those departments. This was especially true once the vaccines rolled out and we began socializing more. Plus, more schools, camps, and daycares opened up, sometimes without masks mandates.

All of this was a perfect storm—not just for COVID to begin to spike again (thanks, Delta!)—but for all kinds of other viruses to spread all over the damn place. One of the worst culprits has been RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) a nasty respiratory virus that can be especially harsh in babies and young children.

RSV Is Surging Early And Hitting Young Kids Hard

RSV usually hits hard in the fall, winter, and spring months. But back in June, there were already indications that RSV was back, and that it was surging earlier than it usually does. The CDC released a memo on June 10th saying that RSV was already spiking in the South, and urged doctors to start testing kids for RSV if they presented with respiratory symptoms but had tested negative for COVID. The CDC memo also explained that RSV infections had actually reached lower than normal levels during the beginning of the pandemic due to COVID safety measures, and that numbers had been creeping back up since April 2021.

The CDC warned that older babies and toddlers could be especially hard hit with RSV since most kids are exposed to it at least a few times during childhood and build up some immunity to it. Not having been exposed to RSV for 15 months might mean that kids who get it for the first time have more serious cases.

What Are The Symptoms Of RSV?

Like all viruses, RSV can be mild for some kids and severe for others. Almost all of us have a bout with RSV when we are babies or toddlers, so we have some immunity to it as we get older. For this reason, RSV is usually not serious in older kids and adults (the exception is older adults, who can experience serious cases and death from RSV), but can be for young children, especially infants and toddlers.

As the CDC notes, about 58,000 young children are hospitalized with RSV every year, and 100-500 kids under five die of it. This is scary and absolutely tragic.

For most of us, RSV is basically like a cold, and includes symptoms of congestion, runny nose, sneezing, cough, etc. Many kids will get a fever with RSV, and just feel generally tired and have a low appetite.

RSV can be serious in little ones because of how it can mess with their lungs and breathing. RSV can cause wheezing, pneumonia, and something called bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the bronchioles (small airway) in the lungs.

One of my sons had bronchiolitis as a toddler and it was hella scary. He needed oral steroids and intensive nebulizer treatments. Honestly, his lungs were never really the same after that, and he continued to develop asthma symptoms frequently with respiratory infections.

As the CDC explains, RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in kiddos less than one years old. Kids with RSV who need hospitalization usually need help with breathing and with dehydration. Kids with severe cases of RSV require oxygen, intubation, or ventilation, according to the CDC.

Christ on a cracker, RSV freaking sucks.

How Can You Tell RSV And COVID Apart?


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RSV and COVID-19 share many of the same symptoms in young kids: congestion, runny nose, fever, cough. It can be hard to tell the two apart without testing, and you should really get a test for your child anytime they are presenting with respiratory symptoms. During the pandemic, nothing is “just a cold” anymore: we need to test so that we know to isolate from others, and stop the spread of COVID.

That being said, there are some potential differences between RSV and COVID-19 that you may be able to spot. According to First Coast News (an NBC affiliate), young children with RSV may have more pronounced breathing issues than young children with COVID-19. They also may be more likely to have symptoms like appetite loss and crankiness. And again, RSV can cause bronchiolitis and pneumonia in little ones.

Kids with COVID-19 may experience more long-term issues than kids with RSV, says First Coast News, and these symptoms may include “brain fog” and loss of taste and smell. In fact, though not everyone gets it, loss of taste and smell is thought to be a defining characteristic of COVID-19, and can happen even without significant congestion.

Again, it’s important to note that both RSV and COVID-19 share many of the same characteristics, and it’s pretty impossible to know which your child has without a test. So don’t try to diagnose your child’s illness alone: get a test.

When Kids Get Infected With COVID And RSV

Both COVID and RSV can be serious for children, and both of them are circulating widely at this time. Unfortunately, that means that some children are getting infected with both RSV and COVID at the same time. And while some children do okay with this combination of viruses, some children are getting more severe cases as a result.

According to NPR, officials don’t know yet the exact incidences of children who are contracting both of these viruses at once. But many doctors are seeing this on the ground, and reporting large number of kids with severe symptoms as a result, as well as a high number of kids hospitalized with both viruses.

For example, as NPR reports, Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston had 25 children hospitalized with both RSV and COVID—and that was out of 45 children hospitalized total. This led officials at the hospital to conclude that getting hit with the double whammy of RSV and COVID can result in a “hospitalization rate much higher than for either virus alone.”

How To Protect Your Kids

Clearly, this is a very tough season for our kids in terms of illness. Pediatric hospitals are seeing the highest rates of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began. Add surging RSV infections into the mix and you have a potentially very dangerous situation for our children.

Because of all this–as well as the fact that Delta is unfortunately spreading among vaccinated as well as unvaccinated folks–we should all be back to masking indoors and practicing all the COVID safety measures we did earlier in the pandemic.

Thankfully, things like masks and distancing can protect against both RSV and COVID.

All of this sucks, and I want the pandemic to be over as much as anyone. But this is the reality right now, and we all must do whatever we can to protect the most vulnerable among us.

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