What’s Causing This Winter’s Mysterious (and Contagious) Lung Congestion?

RSV
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This is the time of year when cold and flu are top of mind. But don’t underestimate lesser-known respiratory illnesses that are sweeping some parts of the nation earlier and more often than usual.

Specifically, healthcare experts are reporting more cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which has symptoms similar to a cold but can become more serious.

Despite lots of coughing, sneezing and sniffling going around, testing to confirm RSV is usually only done on young children, as they can develop breathing problems and infections, said Dr. Gregory Shangold, President of Northeast Emergency Medicine Specialists, which staffs emergency departments at Windham Hospital, The Hospital of Central Connecticut’s Bradley campus and MidState Medical Center.

“In infants, it can cause wheezing and excessive secretions,” Dr. Shangold said. “The low oxygen and inability to stay hydrated can be reasons to admit infants (to the hospital).”

Most children will get an RSV infection by their second birthday, according for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For infants with positive test results, symptoms usually resolve at home in a week or two. Yet in an average year, RSV is responsible nationwide for 2.1 million outpatient visits by children younger than 5 years old  and 14,000 deaths among adults over 65.

Although there is no confirmed spike in cases locally — the state Department of Public Health has only recently required laboratories with electronic reporting capabilities to DPH to report all positive RSV results — lots of people are getting sick with one thing or another. It is not clear what is causing RSV to arrive early and spread so fast in other parts of the nation.

Some are blaming swings in temperatures – back and forth between mild and cold — this winter season.

“People should be evaluated,” said Dr. Kyle McClaine, Chief of Emergency Services at Backus Hospital and Plainfield Backus Emergency Care Center, “if they are confused, lethargic, dehydrated, having problems breathing, severe headache or neck pain,  or neurologic symptoms like numbness or weakness.”

Dr. Shangold said RSV is contagious, so diligent hand-washing and staying home when you are sick are important to stop the spread of the illness. People with RSV are typically contagious for three to eight days, says the CDC. Infants and people with a weakened immune system, however, can spread the virus for up to four weeks — even if symptoms are no longer evident.

Those at highest risk, according to the CDC:

  • Premature infants.
  • Young children with congenital heart or chronic lung disease.
  • Young children with an immune system weakened by a medical condition or medical treatment.
  • Adults with weakened immune systems.
  • Older adults, especially those with underlying heart or lung disease.

Because RSV is a virus, there is no cure, and there isn’t much you can do about the symptoms.

“Many different medications have been tried to help with symptoms but most have not been shown to be effective,” said Shangold, who added that when RSV becomes serious IV fluid and oxygen can be necessary.

RSV can lead to bronchiolitis, which is a common lung infection in young children, so if your child is experiencing persistent coughing, sneezing or other symptoms, go to your local Hartford HealthCare-GoHealth Urgent Care center, pediatrician or emergency department.

Not feeling well? Hartford HealthCare-GoHealth Urgent Care centers are open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 8 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm. To make an appointment, check wait times or to find other GoHealth locations, click here


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