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RSV Virus Is Spreading in Southern States, What to Know and How to Protect Your Kids

mother and her son sitting on the couch, the son is blowing his nose

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Key Takeaways

  • The CDC has issued a health advisory about RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).
  • Many parts of the southern United States have experienced a surge in RSV cases not typical for this time of year.
  • Protective health behaviors like hand-washing and social distancing can help to protect yourself and your family from RSV.

The coronavirus has dominated the news—and our minds—for more than a year, but there’s another virus causing concern right now. Many U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Columbia, and Tampa, have experienced a surge in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that's not typical for the summer months.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hundreds of RSV cases have been detected weekly since April, with surges in May resulting in nearly 500 cases per week.

What Is RSV? 

RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. In most cases, it’s fairly harmless and recovery is quick. But it can be more dangerous in infants and older adults. 

“RSV can cause mild cold-like symptoms, including runny nose, sore throat, cough, fever, fatigue, wheezing, and headache. It can also cause more serious illnesses like pneumonia,” says Christopher Baliga, MD, infectious disease specialist at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. He adds that while RSV is typically found mostly during fall, winter, and spring, outbreaks can occur all year long.

According to the CDC, “RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States.”

Christopher Baliga, MD

RSV can cause mild cold-like symptoms, including runny nose, sore throat, cough, fever, fatigue, wheezing, and headache. It can also cause more serious illnesses like pneumonia.

— Christopher Baliga, MD

A preprint paper published in Pediatrics showed that about two-thirds of infants and children who tested positive for RSV at Maimonides Children’s Hospital in New York City between March 1 and May 8 of this year were admitted to the hospital. Of those admitted, 81% were put in intensive care and six children were put on ventilators.

"Our data indicates more severe disease in younger infants possibly due to diminished immunity from lack of exposure to RSV in the previous season," wrote authors Rabia Agha and Jeffrey Avner write. "Continuing closures of daycare centers and virtual schooling may have resulted in less spread of the disease to older children."

Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of social distancing brand Give Space, believes that the unseasonably high spike in RSV infections in kids is due to the relaxation of protective health behaviors that started in March of 2021 right around the time people started to get vaccinated. "Many people voiced their exhaustion with all of the hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing. As a result, RSV was delayed, but not eradicated," she says.

Protecting Yourself and Others From RSV 

Risk factors for having more serious RSV infections include being a preemie, being less than 6 months of age, and being less than 2 years of age with heart or lung disease, Dr. Baliga says. Children with weakened immune systems or neuromuscular disorders that make it more difficult to clear their secretions are also at risk for more serious illness.

As with all viruses, good hygiene and common sense are required. “Stay home if you are sick, and keep your kids out of school or daycare if they are ill,” Dr. Baliga says.

Carol Winner, MPH

Many people voiced their exhaustion with all of the hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing. As a result, RSV was delayed, but not eradicated.

— Carol Winner, MPH

By now, we're all used to giving each other space to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but it's a measure that keeps all types of viruses at bay. "We know social distancing can prevent infection," Winner says. "COVID-19 has rightly taught us the significance of protective health behaviors so what better population to continue to protect than our most vulnerable?"

To keep newborns safe from RSV, Winner recommends waiting for a couple of weeks before introducing the baby to people outside the immediate family. "Those loving family visits should include hand washing before holding the baby and no kissing on the face or hands," she adds.

What This Means For You

There's no specific treatment for RSV infection, but you can take protective measures to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, such as hand-washing, mask-wearing, and physical distancing—basically, all the things we've been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children with compromised immune systems or heart or lung disease should be protected by regular environmental cleaning, and distancing and mask-wearing from those outside the home. If you have an infant or child who falls into this high-risk group, your pediatrician may prescribe a preventative antibody medicine, Dr. Baliga says

Because some of the symptoms of RSV overlap with those of COVID-19, parents might test their child for COVID-19 in the first instance. If the test result is negative but the child is still displaying the symptoms, Winner advises requesting an RSV test from your doctor. "Knowing RSV is present in the family will allow for necessary precautions, such as cleaning surfaces and isolation. Mask wearing can help stop you touching your face when you‘re providing care to someone with RSV," she explains.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV national trends. Updated 25, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV). Updated December 18, 2020.

  3. Agha R, Avner JR. Delayed seasonal RSV surge observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pediatrics. Published online June 9, 2021. doi:10.1542/peds.2021-052089