Protect your family from the new respiratory virus

As reported officially by the CDC this week, in the last month hospitals in Illinois and Missouri reported an increase in emergency department visits and hospitalizations for respiratory symptoms. Since then, reports of similar illness are coming in from many other states, scattered across the country. Here in Georgia, our own Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta microbiology team is reporting a lot of cases. Most (but not all) of the children with more severe illness had pre-existing lung disease (like asthma).

The illness seems to be mostly affecting children. Most cases begin with ordinary, cold-like symptoms—and it’s likely that most cases actually never develop into anything more than that. The reported cases, so far, may well be a “tip of the iceberg” effect, where only the sickest children get tested and identified. These are the kids who develop trouble breathing and low oxygen levels, and often need intensive care. It’s quite likely that most children with this infection quickly recover after a cough, sniffles, and runny nose. Of the cases reported so far, only about 1 in 4 or 5 runs a fever. Probably, most children and adults who have this infection don’t seek medical care, and very few of them (so far) are even being tested for the likely viral cause.

Most of the reported cases are testing positive for a specific virus, called enterovirus D68. That virus was first identified in California and 1962, and until now had rarely been a reported cause of illness. The enterovirus group, as a whole, contains a lot of other viruses that cause a whole bunch of different symptoms—fevers, respiratory illnesses, GI problems, heart disease, rashes, and neurologic problems. Pediatricians and others who take care of kids are used to seeing tons of enterovirus, which usually strikes in the summer, most typically as hand-foot-and-mouth disease, or as a fever. So we’re used to these kinds of viruses, even though this specific one is a newly-recognized member of the family. We’re not 100% sure, yet, exactly how D68 is transmitted, but other enteroviruses spread though respiratory drops and in stool, and can remain infectious for a long time on contaminated surfaces.

As with many viral infections, prevention is the best strategy. Common sense things can really help: keep your kids home when they’re sick, and don’t send your kids off to play with sick children. Encourage your kids to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer frequently. Get a good night’s sleep and moderate exercise. Keep your child up-to-date on vaccines—though there is no specific vaccine for this enterovirus, bacterial and viral co-infections with influenza and pneumonia can be prevented. If your child has asthma (or any other respiratory problems), make sure that you’re keeping up with all prescribed treatments, so things are less likely to spiral out of control when an infection strikes.

If your child does get sick with cough, look out for these symptoms:

  • Having trouble breathing. You may see individual ribs poking out with each breath, or the depression at the bottom of the neck sinking in. Children with trouble breathing usually breathe fast, and sometimes breathe noisily.
  • Having trouble speaking. If you can’t get good breaths in, you can’t typically complete sentences and talk normally.
  • Seeming listless, with low energy. Children with serious respiratory compromise may not be getting enough oxygen to their brains. They can seem “foggy” or “out of it.”
  • Drinking poorly. Younger children and babies may have a hard time eating and (especially) drinking when they’re really ill.
  • Looking blue or pale.

If you’re seeing those kinds of symptoms, take your child to the doctor right away, or head to the emergency department. Even if things don’t seem quite that bad, if you’re worried, don’t hesitate to call for help.

Most children who are getting enterovirus D68 infection will do just fine. Some of you have probably already had children with this, and didn’t even know it. Every year, we see spikes of infections like this, caused by a variety of viruses like RSV, metapneumovirus, or influenza. Though there is no specific therapy for most of these, we’re pretty good at recognizing who needs extra help, and we can provide good supportive care when it’s needed. It sounds scary when you see news of a new, bad infection—but in truth, this isn’t very different from other infections we’re used to dealing with. We need to stay vigilant and keep our eyes on whatever’s out there making our children sick, but there’s no reason to get too worked up over this latest challenge.