RSV cases spiking in Norton Children’s

Hospital admitting more than twice as many patients with RSV compared with this time last year

Norton Children’s is treating more than twice as many patients with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) compared with the same period last year — fueling an unseasonal spike in respiratory illnesses typically seen in winter months.

Norton Children’s Hospital has admitted 66 patients for RSV this week, compared with 32 at the same point in 2021. RSV admissions at the hospital have increased 61% from earlier in the month.

The peak season for RSV is typically late December through mid-February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, Norton Children’s Hospital experienced an unexpected spike in RSV admissions in summer 2021.

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According to Scott Bickel, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist and medical director for respiratory therapy at Norton Children’s Pulmonology, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, the hospital also is treating more patients for rhinovirus and enterovirus.

“These viruses typically circulate in day care centers and schools every fall and winter, so this may be a sign that we’re in for a busy winter as respiratory illnesses spread in our community,” Dr. Bickel said.

Signs and symptoms of RSV

RSV typically causes common cold with symptoms like cough, runny nose, and fever in older children and adults. Children with asthma may experience more troublesome symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath which might require medications such as albuterol and, in some cases, steroids.

Infants and young children can develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia (both are lung infections) from RSV infections. Bronchiolitis causes inflammation of small airways and significant mucus production, which makes breathing difficult for patients. 

“If you notice your child is really laboring to breathe, is taking slow, shallow breaths or has bluish skin on their face or extremities, seek medical attention immediately,” Dr. Bickel said. “Patients with severe RSV cases require breathing assistance to recover and may experience respiratory failure, so treatment is vitally important. Severe cases of this illness can be fatal for infants, particularly those born prematurely or with other serious medical conditions such as serious heart disease.”

RSV hospitalizes more than 50,000 children younger than 5 and kills about 100 younger than 1 every year, according to data cited by the CDC.

RSV prevention and treatment

Since RSV is a virus, antibiotics will not help treat it. Saline drops can help thin mucus, and gentle nasal suctioning with a suction bulb can remove some clogged mucus to make breathing easier, especially before and after feeding and sleeping.

“Drinking plenty of fluids is essential to avoid dehydration,” Dr. Bickel said. “Your baby may prefer drinking thinner liquids like Pedialyte instead of milk or formula during RSV infections because they’re easier to tolerate.”

“Avoid using aspirin because it can cause Reye’s syndrome in children, which significantly affects the liver and brain,” Dr. Bickel said. “Families also should avoid cough and cold medications to treat RSV symptoms.”

Families can take preventive measures to avoid RSV infection, such as keeping their children home from day care or school if they are sick, regularly practicing good hand hygiene, and regularly disinfecting household items. 

Children with RSV symptoms should visit a pediatrician for testing, though severe cases may warrant a trip to the emergency room.