Hospitals nationwide are reporting spiking cases of the virus that causes respiratory tract infections in infants. Here's what parents need to know.

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Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is an illness that causes respiratory tract infections in infants. It typically spikes in the winter months, but medical institutions are reporting rising cases right now. Southern states are getting hit particularly hard, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a health advisory warning.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be to blame. Throughout the fall and winter, public health measures limited exposure to RSV and other viruses. And now that many mandates are lifted, "it probably provided an opportunity for that virus to take hold and create a little mini spike here that we're seeing right now," Jason Terk, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician at Cook Children's Pediatrics in Keller, Texas, recently told Yahoo Life.

It's important to note that most infants with RSV get better without much treatment. But as the illness sends 58,000 kids to the hospital every year—and causes 100 to 500 deaths in children under 5 years old—parents would do well to understand the current threat and the warning signs. Here's what you need to know.

doctor putting stethoscope on baby's chest
Credit: Getty Images

What the Current RSV Outbreak Looks Like

The virus usually begins circulating in the fall and peaks in January or February, so this springtime rise is unexpected. In its advisory, the CDC blames "reduced circulation of RSV during the winter months of 2020–2021" because older infants and toddlers didn't have "typical levels of exposure" to RSV.

The illness seems particularly prevalent in parts of the South, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Data is limited in some jurisdictions, however, due to minimal testing in the RSV off-season.

What to Know About RSV

Thanks to increased RSV activity, the CDC recommends "broader testing for RSV among patients presenting with acute respiratory illness who test negative for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19." It's important for parents to recognize the signs of RSV and understand how it spreads. Here are some useful facts.

Cases typically spike during cold and flu season, although the current outbreak doesn't follow that pattern. "Like influenza, the exact timing and severity varies year to year," notes William Linam, M.D. pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

RSV is the most frequent cause of bronchiolitis. This is an inflammation of the small airway passages entering the lungs in infants and young children. RSV is also the most common cause of pneumonia in those under 1. "Infants, young children, and older adults with chronic medical conditions are at risk of severe disease from RSV infection," says the CDC.

RSV spreads through direct person-to-person contact. It also spreads through respiratory droplets, which are released when infected people cough or sneeze. RSV can live on surfaces, notes the Mayo Clinic.

There is no vaccine for RSV. The best way to guard against it is frequent hand-washing, disinfecting surfaces and shared toys, covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow, and avoiding touching the face and eyes.

RSV can be mistaken for the flu or COVID-19. "Both RSV and influenza can present with cold-like symptoms—fever, runny nose, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat—and often can be difficult to tell apart," says Dr. Linam. RSV also has overlapping symptoms with COVID-19, so it's important to get your child tested if they come down with respiratory symptoms.

RSV Signs to Look For

For infants, RSV symptoms include irritability, tiredness, poor feeding, shallow or rapid breathing, difficulty breathing, or cough. Older babies and kids may experience decreased appetite, dry cough, runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever, sore throat, headache, or wheezing.

In general, the Mayo Clinic notes that the following signs and symptoms are reasons to seek prompt medical attention:

  • High fever
  • Audible wheezing sounds
  • Breathing very fast—more than 60 breaths a minute (tachypnea)—and shallowly
  • Labored breathing—the ribs seem to suck inward when infant inhales
  • Sluggish or lethargic appearance
  • Refusal to drink enough, or breathing too fast to eat or drink
  • Skin turning blue, especially the lips and fingernails (cyanosis)