So why are we experiencing a summer surge of RSV? To understand, Health Matters spoke with Dr. Sadeghi, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, to explain what RSV is, who it affects, how serious it can be, and why the sudden increase in cases.
If RSV cases are more common in the fall and winter months, why the sudden uptick this summer?
If we look back at the past 12 months, people were wearing face masks, practicing good hand hygiene, and were isolating themselves to control the spread of COVID-19. In doing so, that drastically reduced the rate of other viral infections, like RSV. But now, with COVID-19 vaccinations leading people to forgo face masks and the easing of travel restrictions, there is more transmission of viruses.
Who does RSV affect?
RSV can affect anyone, but it most seriously affects premature infants or those with underlying risk factors. Most children experience a case of RSV by the time they are 2 years old. But that was pre-pandemic. With all the infection control of the past year, that may not hold true.
Is it dangerous?
For most people, it can present like a cold and usually clears up with plenty of rest and fluids. But for anyone with a weakened immune system, they are more at risk of developing severe symptoms. For example, those who are born premature (less than 29 weeks of gestation), those who are 65 years or older, and anyone with chronic lung disease or neuromuscular weakness, RSV can affect them much more severely.
Generally speaking, the really young and the really old are more at risk of developing severe symptoms.
Why is RSV dangerous for infants?
RSV is more dangerous in babies because their immune system is still developing. In babies, RSV can cause bronchiolitis (inflammation in the small airways of the lungs), pneumonia, or croup, which can lead to breathing difficulties and a persistent cough. For premature babies, they could end up in the intensive care unit.
What are the warning signs?
If a parent sees that their baby is working harder to breathe — they are wheezing, have nasal flaring, or belly breathing (you can see their ribs when they breathe in and out) — these are signs that they might be struggling to breathe. Another important clue in infants is reduced feeding. If your baby isn’t eating as much, that could be an initial sign that something could be wrong.
Contact your pediatrician if your child is at risk of severe RSV infection, has irritability, decreased activity, apnea (pauses in respiration), difficulty breathing, fever that is over 101 degrees, blue color lips, or reduced feeding.