Carolinas Medical Center, on Blythe Boulevard in Charlotte, is Atrium Health’s flagship hospital. On Thursday, state and federal authorities announced that they had reached a settlement with Atrium over healthcare pricing. File photo

Carolinas Medical Center, on Blythe Boulevard in Charlotte, is Atrium Health’s flagship hospital. On Thursday, state and federal authorities announced that they had reached a settlement with Atrium over healthcare pricing. File photo

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Hospitals in North Carolina are seeing an increase in patients infected with a seasonal respiratory illness that can cause severe breathing issues for children.

Cases of RSV in Charlotte and across the state are on the rise this month. There were 1,776 RSV cases reported in North Carolina from Oct. 8-22, up from 1,363 during the previous two-week period, according to the most recent data available from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

NCDHHS RSV graph.png
This graph shows the number of RSV cases reported in North Carolina over the last year. N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a virus that causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last week, more than 7,000 tests came back positive for RSV, according to CDC figures. That’s more than in previous surges, the Associated Press reported.

“We are seeing increased numbers of hospitalizations due to RSV and influenza-like illnesses across all Novant Health hospitals,” a spokesperson for the health care system told The Charlotte Observer in an email. While we’re concerned these increases could impact our bed capacity, Novant Health has extensive surge planning in place and stands ready to activate, as needed.”

Atrium Health indicated that it is “seeing higher volumes” of respiratory illness among patients at Levine Children’s Hospital, a spokesman told the Observer in an email.

Dr. Rhonda Patt, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital, said RSV case counts are higher among children this year due to waning immunity from the virus during the COVID-19 pandemic when most people wore masks and practiced social distancing.

“Over the course of a year, you may have three or four colds but during the past couple of years, most people have not had very many colds, so our immunity has dropped a bit,” Patt said. “Now, all of the regular colds that go around like RSV and rhinovirus, we’re seeing that take a bigger toll on the community.”

Most people who contract the virus recover within two weeks, but RSV can cause serious health problems in infants and children under two years old, including bronchiolitis, or inflammation of the lung, Patt said.

What are RSV symptoms?

According to the CDC, symptoms of RSV include:

  • Runny nose

  • Decrease in appetite

  • Coughing

  • Sneezing

  • Fever

  • Wheezing

Infants with RSV may only experience irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties, according to the CDC.

Unlike kids infected with the flu who show severe symptoms those with RSV typically experience mild, cold-like symptoms that can escalate a few days before they start to get better, Patt said.

Children infected with RSV need to be hospitalized if they have trouble breathing and need oxygen for support, Patt said, adding that infants may also need to be admitted if they cannot feed properly.

“I would say that if someone suspects their baby has RSV, they should be evaluated by their doctor or healthcare provider,” Patt said. “But the majority of kids are fine, and the ones who are hospitalized recover.”

How does RSV spread?

According to the CDC, RSV can spread when:

  • An infected person coughs or sneezes

  • Virus droplets from a cough or sneeze get in your eyes, nose or mouth

  • You touch a surface that has the virus on it, then touch your face before washing your hands

  • You have direct contact with the virus, like kissing someone infected with RSV

People infected with RSV are usually contagious for up to eight days, but infants can spread the virus for as long as four weeks, according to the CDC.

How is RSV treated?

There is no specific treatment for RSV, Patt said, but these tips can help treat symptoms of RSV, according to the CDC:

  • Use over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

  • Drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.

  • Talk to a healthcare provider before giving children non-prescription cold medicines.

How to protect against infection

As RSV spreads, there are steps you can take to prevent catching the virus.

“We strongly encourage preventative measures such as staying home if you are sick, maintaining good respiratory etiquette such as washing your hands and covering your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and most importantly, getting vaccinated for both flu and COVID-19 to best protect yourself and others,” a spokesperson for Novant Health told the Observer.

For parents of newborns and babies under two months old, Patt recommends limiting the number of people who hold their children and monitor family members for cold symptoms.

The CDC recommends that individuals infected with RSV:

  • Cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper shirt sleeve

  • Wash their hands often

  • Avoid close contact, such as kissing or shaking hands

  • Clean frequently touched surfaces such as door knobs and cell phones

Parents with children who are at high risk for developing severe RSV should avoid close contacts, wash their hands often and limit the time they spend in child care facilities where the virus often spreads, according to the CDC.

Premature infants and children under two with chronic lung conditions may be eligible to receive Synagis, a monthly monoclonal antibody treatment used to prevent RSV, Patt said. If your child has a high risk of developing severe RSV, you should ask your healthcare provider about the treatment, she advised.

This story was originally published October 27, 2022 10:59 AM.

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Evan Moore is a service journalism reporter for the Charlotte Observer. He grew up in Denver, North Carolina, where he previously worked as a reporter for the Denver Citizen, and is a UNC Charlotte graduate.

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