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Guest column, Andrew Orlando Joseph: What is RSV and what do we do about it?
Andrew Orlando Joseph
Andrew Orlando Joseph

“HAAACHOO!” Mr. Smith expels a large sneeze followed by seemingly incessant sniffling. He and his entire family have been sick for the past three days. 

“We should have never put Skyler back in day care” he grumbled under his breath. “This is the third bug she has brought home, and now I’m going to have to take off work again.” 

Mr. Smith was apprehensive about putting his daughter back in day care so soon after they had just relaxed the mask mandate and enforcement of social distancing. Mr. Smith and his family had avoided contracting COVID-19 throughout the height of the pandemic but now it seems that it may have caught up to them. 

Mr. Smith takes his 13-year-old son to the emergency department when he starts to wheeze and complains of difficulty taking a breath. The emergency medicine doctor ordered a respiratory viral panel to screen for the possible cause. The results? COVID-19 negative, RSV positive. “I don’t get it,” says Mr. Smith with a look of confusion on his face. “What is RSV?”

What is RSV? 

Respiratory Syncytial Virus is a virus that, as its name suggests, causes an infection in the respiratory tract. Did you know that globally, RSV accounts for more than 60% of serious respiratory infections in children? While RSV is commonly associated with infants and children, anyone can be infected.

Usually around October through March, physicians see outbreaks of RSV. Here at home, Gainesville had unusually high disease activity this past summer, as did most of the world. This was due in most part to relaxed COVID-19 preventative measures in the spring. Almost all children by the age of 2 have been infected by RSV, with reinfections being common.  

What are the symptoms of RSV? 

The symptoms vary depending on the age of the person and the number of times they have been infected. The infection could be in the upper respiratory tract (from the nose down to the throat and everywhere in between), the lower respiratory tract (below the voice box all the way down to the lungs) or both. These symptoms can be harmless such as sneezing and/or having a runny nose, to extremely severe with violent coughing, difficulty breathing and possible death. 

Symptoms in infants and younger children can be mistaken for a variety of ailments, including (but not limited to) COVID-19, common cold, influenza, parainfluenza, etc., so it’s always important to consult your doctor. 

Adults can also contract RSV multiple times throughout their lives and symptoms are usually more benign and primarily involve the upper respiratory tract. 

How do we treat RSV?

Whether RSV is in the upper or lower respiratory tract, or both, treatment focuses on the patient’s symptoms rather than treating the infection. 

Physicians make sure the patient is hydrated, getting adequate rest and monitor how they’re feeling as time goes on. In most cases, the patient feels better over the course of a couple of weeks. In more severe cases, patients may need respiratory support using an inhaler or may even need the help of a ventilator. 

In the likelihood that a patient develops a secondary bacterial respiratory infection, treatment will then include antibiotics. It’s important to note that antibiotics will not treat a viral infection! Your doctor will help differentiate between a bacterial and viral infection during an exam. 

How do we avoid RSV?

Some ways to prevent RSV infection in both adults and babies include proper and frequent hand washing, practicing cough hygiene such as covering your cough, avoidance of exposure to tobacco and other smoke and restricting participation in child care for high-risk infants. Many of the measures put in place to protect against the transmission of COVID-19 (such as wearing masks and social distancing) would apply here as well. 

The best tool we have is to be sure to get your COVID-19 vaccine if you’re eligible, as well as your flu vaccine. It’s completely possible to be infected with more than one virus at a time, which could lead to poor health outcomes.

Please stay safe out there and know we are here for all your health care needs!

Andrew Orlando Joseph is a part of the family medicine resident program at Northeast Georgia Health System. Columns publish monthly from residents in the program.