SALT LAKE CITY — One day, when Owen Magness was 9 months old, he fell so ill he could barely breathe in enough air to fill his tiny lungs. Normally a vibrant child, he appeared lethargic. Worried, his mother, Andrea, took him to the hospital, where he spent three days for treatment of a respiratory infection known as RSV.
Last week, when the 2-year-old had a high fever and a bad cough, his mom took him back to the hospital.
"It's just not worth taking the risk," Andrea Magness said of respiratory syncytial virus. "The rapid culture test they took was negative, but the doctor said he had all the symptoms, so they wanted to be sure."
Each winter, local hospitals and clinics see a rise in the number of kids coming to emergency rooms with highly contagious symptoms of RSV. This year is no different. In fact, at Primary Children's Medical Center, there are so many kids with RSV, nurses are having to readjust their schedules to meet the needs of incoming patients.
"We're right in the middle of the usual peak we see every winter," said Dr. Hilary Hewes, a fellow in the pediatric emergency room at Primary Children's Medical Center. "But there has been a high prevalence around the valley."
Each year in the United States, 75,000 to 125,000 kids under a year old are hospitalized due to RSV infection. Almost all children are infected with the virus by their second birthday, but only a small percentage develop worse symptoms, resulting in pneumonia and other lung diseases, and potentially, death.
Although RSV is not a reportable disease in Utah, Primary Children's has tracked the number of cases it has witnessed this year, resulting in a peak in late December, but another big surge happening late last week. Hewes said 188 kids visited the ER with RSV-like symptoms in the past week, some of them being admitted. However, 90 to 95 percent of kids are fine, she said.
Symptoms can run the gamut of regular cold symptoms, but even those symptoms can make breathing difficult for little lungs and immature immune systems.
"Older kids bring it home to their younger siblings, and it just gets passed around," Hewes said.
Difficulty breathing is the most severe of potential symptoms in RSV, but a cough, sneeze, runny nose and fever might also accompany it, as well as a decreased appetite. Premature infants, children less than 2 years of age with congenital heart or chronic lung disease and children with compromised immune systems due to a medical condition or medical treatment are at highest risk for severe disease. Adults with weakened immune systems and those 65 and older are also at increased risk of severe disease.
RSV infections are widespread from November to April, and the virus can be spread through airborne particles from uncovered sneezes and coughs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infection can also result from direct and indirect contact with nasal or oral secretions from infected persons. To prevent the spread of RSV, the agency recommends having children cover their mouths, wash their hands frequently and correctly (with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds), avoid sharing cups and eating utensils, and refrain from kissing.
"You do the best you can do to keep them away from other kids when they're sick, but they're kids, so they're going to be around other kids," Magness said. She just tries to doctor her son's symptoms and help him to feel better as quickly as possible.