Cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and other respiratory illnesses have been surging throughout the United States. While recent headlines have been focusing on how children infected with RSV have been filling hospitals to capacity, older adults are also being hospitalized at a rate that is unusually high compared with previous years.
Latest data (as of the week ending November 5) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that seniors ages 65 and up with RSV are filling hospital beds at a weekly rate of 1.6 per 100,000. Since the 2014–2015 season, CDC figures show that this hospitalization rate had not risen above 1 per 100,000. In 2018 at this same time of year, seniors with RSV were being admitted to the hospital at a low 0.2 per 100,000 — 8 times lower than the current rate.
Still, young children is the population most affected by RSV. Among infants ages 0 to 6 months, 145.2 per 100,000 are being hospitalized weekly, according to latest federal government numbers. For those ages 6 to 12 months with the virus, the rate is 63 per 100,000.
The Yolo County Health Department in California is warning all residents that RSV can be serious, especially in infants and older adults, causing pneumonia (lung infection) and bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung).
Each year, it is estimated that between 60,000 to 120,000 older Americans are hospitalized and 6,000 to 10,000 of them die due to RSV infection, according to the CDC. Those most at risk are age 65 and up or have chronic heart or lung disease or fragile immune systems.
RSV Is Part of a Triple Viral Health Threat
“We are seeing higher than usual influenza and RSV activity for this time of year,” said Yolo County Health Officer Aimee Sisson, MD, in a statement. “We are also seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.”
Although there are currently no vaccines for RSV, researchers are working toward producing them and some trials are producing encouraging results. Highly effective inoculations to fight flu and COVID-19, however, do exist, and health authorities are encouraging all to get their shots.
“The U.S. is currently facing its highest flu hospitalization rate in a decade, with young children and seniors most at risk,” said Same Vohra, MD, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, in a press release. “Vaccines remain our best tools to prevent the worst outcomes from COVID-19 and flu. I strongly recommend all that have not gotten full protection from COVID-19 and the flu to get vaccinated right away. Both the new COVID-19 bivalent booster and the flu shot target the current strains of these viruses.”
Taking More Care This Season
While vaccinations offer protection against serious illness, people still can get sick with any of these viruses, so public health officials advise individuals to take extra precautions, especially during the fall and winter when these viruses flourish. To protect against RSV and other respiratory disease, Americans are urged to:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Germs spread this way.
- Avoid close contact, such as kissing, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who have cold-like symptoms.
- Cover mouth and nose with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve when coughing or sneezing.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as toys, doorknobs, and mobile devices. When people infected with RSV touch surfaces and objects, they can leave behind germs. Droplets containing germs can also land on surfaces and objects when infected people sneeze or cough.
- Stay home from work, school, and public areas when you are sick. This will help protect others from catching your illness.
If You Suspect You Are Sick
The symptoms of RSV, influenza, COVID-19, and the common cold overlap significantly, and only healthcare provider testing can definitively tell these infections apart. Home COVID-19 tests are a valuable tool to detect COVID-19, but they are unable to detect other viral infections. A person with a negative COVID-19 test could still have influenza, RSV, or another viral infection. A consultation with a doctor or healthcare provider may offer the most accurate diagnosis, and proper course of treatment.