Winter months bring the inevitable increase in illnesses such as the flu and a respiratory virus called RSV. This year, the incidence of RSV is especially high. We usually alternate between good and bad years, and this is a particularly bad year for RSV. We’re also seeing an increase in the incidence of flu, which tends to peak in mid-February. As kids are especially vulnerable to these illnesses, here’s what you need to know, and what you can do if your child becomes ill.
The big difference between flu and RSV is the way symptoms begin. The flu usually starts with a high fever along with aches and pains. RSV starts out as a cold -- sometimes with fever -- but mainly a cold that leads to coughing, fast breathing and wheezing.
If your child has flu symptoms, take him or her to the pediatrician as soon as possible. If you identify the flu in the first 24 to 48 hours, your child may be able to take medication so that he or she will not be quite as sick for quite as long.
Another big difference between the flu and RSV is that we don’t have medicine for RSV. It is essentially a cold virus. RSV is a much more serious issue for those who are very young, very old, or have certain medical conditions that put them at a higher risk of infection.
RSV starts as a cold and, for babies less than six months or particularly less than two months, the airways get very swollen and plugged with mucus. This can produce respiratory distress and a small percentage of those children — maybe one in 20—will go on to develop bacterial pneumonia.
Older children and adults can tolerate the cold symptoms better because airways become larger as we age. But small children, and particularly infants, can end up in the hospital on a ventilator.
If your child starts showing cold symptoms, watch for difficulty breathing. If your child becomes lethargic or unable to eat, he or she needs to see a physician. If there is something obviously wrong, take your child to the emergency department.
Each year, you should immunize yourself against the flu. If you didn’t get your flu shot, it’s not too late. By immunizing yourself against the flu, you are also ensuring that you don’t pass the virus along to someone at a higher risk of serious complications from the flu – babies, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system.
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