Cohen Medical Associates is a family medical center and research center located in Delray Beach, FL.
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Should You Be Worried About RSV?

You may think that because nearly all the media attention regarding the respiratory illness RSV has been focused on children you don’t have to worry.

But our primary care doctors in Delray Beach want you to know that it can and does kill adults, too, especially if they’re older or immunocompromised.

It’s important to know this, because this year the virus is spreading at “unprecedented” levels, according to many doctors, and it began in the summer, instead of December and January, the usual RSV season.

“I’ve been at Connecticut Children’s [Hospital] for 25 years, and I’ve never seen this level of surge specifically for RSV coming into our hospital,” Juan Salazar, the hospital’s executive vice president, and physician-in-chief told CNN.

This is because far fewer people are still observing the pandemic precautions of social distancing and universal masking.

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a respiratory virus that is a common cause of lower respiratory illness. It usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms that resolve with home care in a week or two.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 one year of age. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.

But the disease is not just confined to children. The CDC reported late last month that hospitalization rates for seniors in the U.S. are about 10 higher than pre-pandemic levels at this point in the virus season. Their figures show that about six out of every 100,000 seniors have been hospitalized with RSV so far this year.

In a typical RSV season, the virus will be responsible for up to 10,000 deaths among adults older than 65, according to the CDC. This is because people in this age group tend to have health issues like lung or heart disease or diabetes.

“One of the reasons that persons with these diseases are at higher risk is because of the underlying disease—the function of the heart, lungs, and immune systems are already compromised and less able to handle the stress associated with the infection,” said Robert Atmar, professor of infectious diseases at Baylor University, in a news release.

What are the Symptoms?

When an adult gets an RSV infection, they typically have mild, cold-like symptoms, but some may develop a lung infection or pneumonia, the CDC reports.

RSV can sometimes also lead to the worsening of serious conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and congestive heart failure, in which the heart can’t pump enough oxygen through the body.

People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within four to six days after getting infected. These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. Symptoms usually include:

  • runny nose
  • decrease in appetite
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • wheezing

The CDC says RSV can spread when:

  • an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • you get virus droplets from a cough or sneeze in your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • you have direct contact with the virus, like kissing the face of a child with RSV
  • you touch a surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touch your own face before washing your hands

People infected with RSV are usually contagious for three to eight days and may be contagious for a day or two before they start showing signs of illness. However, some people with weakened immune systems, along with infants, can continue to spread the virus even after they stop showing symptoms, for as long as four weeks later.

How to Avoid it

RSV can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables, although it typically lives on soft surfaces such as tissues and hands for shorter periods of time.

So if you’re at risk, here’s what the CDC recommends to avoid picking up the virus.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people, such as kissing, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who have cold-like symptoms.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirtsleeve when coughing or sneezing and dispose of the tissue afterward.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as doorknobs and mobile devices.
  • Stay home when you are sick.

In addition, wear a facemask in public places or around infected people to prevent inhaling infected droplets.

If you do become infected, you can manage the fever and pain with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Be sure to get plenty of rest and drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.

Call 911 if you see any signs of an emergency, including:

  • trouble breathing
  • persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • new confusion
  • inability to wake or stay awake
  • pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
  • if you think it may be an emergency

If you’re not feeling better in a few days or if your symptoms worsen, let us know.

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