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What is RSV?

As if influenza and COVID-19 weren’t challenging enough to manage, Americans across the country are experiencing a resurgence of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

RSV is a common winter virus that typically causes mild cold-like illness in most people. It can occasionally be quite dangerous for young children and older adults. RSV usually affects children under two years of age during the winter. This year, though, the virus arrived early and hit even older children harder.

Karen Santucci, MD, Greenwich Hospital’s chief medical officer, said the surge in RSV cases among older children could be the result of practices adopted during the pandemic, such as social distancing, masking and improved hand washing. That means many children who normally would have been exposed to RSV were not exposed to the virus. “Children who spent more time isolated from others are still susceptible to RSV, even though they got older,” said Dr. Santucci, who is a pediatric emergency medicine physician.

Some young children and older adults may develop cough, fever and difficulty breathing. These symptoms are consistent with RSV but can also be indicative of COVID-19 or influenza. Most RSV cases do not require hospitalization, but some patients may need medical attention if they are having difficulty breathing or are dehydrated.

RSV is just one of nearly a dozen other respiratory illnesses that tend to circulate in the fall and winter. Other common viruses include rhinovirus, which is the cause of the common cold; parainfluenza, which can cause croup; influenza and adenovirus, which can cause fever and conjunctivitis.

Dr. Santucci recommends that children over the age of 6 months get a flu shot. She also advises everyone to take precautions to keep themselves and others safe by practicing good hand-washing techniques and staying away from others when sick. “These actions can help to stop the spread of respiratory illnesses,” she said.