BALTIMORE, Md. – A virus that can cause severe respiratory distress in children under the age of one or with certain underlying health conditions has surged earlier than usual, doctors warn.

Respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, is similar to a common cold. 

The CDC lists several symptoms associated with RSV, which can include cough, runny nose, sneezing, fever and difficulty breathing. Symptoms typically subside in a week or two, however, a cough may persist for longer.

The virus typically surfaces between October and November, and peaks between December and January. In Maryland, cases of RSV started to show up in September, according to the Interim Chair of Pediatrics at Baltimore Medical Center, Dr. Terry Nguyen.

“The cases have continued to climb,” Nguyen said. “There are more actual cases of RSV at this time, which is very different than what we usually see and the severity, the acuity of the disease is much higher.” 

This has caused a strain across pediatric Intensive Care Units at several local medical systems, Nguyen added.

“Many of our units, the intensive care units at University of Maryland or at Hopkins, they have not been able to open all of their ICU beds because of staffing,” Nguyen said.

Wait times in emergency departments have increased too.

“A one- to two-hour wait in an ED in critical times of the year, totally expected. 4-8 hours . . . This is why we’re really trying to educate the public about what the signs of severe disease are that your child needs to be seen in an emergency department and what can be seen at a doctor’s office,” Nguyen said.  

Cases are not expected to slow down as the season turns toward the winter months.

“Once you see it, you see it for the rest of the winter season,” Nguyen said. “It may ebb and flow.”

Most RSV cases can be managed at home without the need for a trip to a pediatrician or emergency department, according to Nguyen.

However, children under the age of one, especially those under six months, premature infants and those with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease, are at the highest risk for severe respiratory distress.

If a child appears to be having difficulty breathing for several hours, seek medical attention for the child, Nguen said.

“They’ll be breathing fast, their nostrils will be flaring, their ribs you’ll see what’s called retractions and their stomach will go in and out . . . They’re gasping for air,” he said.

These symptoms can also lead to infants in distress to not eat, irritability from not sleeping and may not drink enough liquids.

The disease can also adversely affect those over the age of 65.

Doctors said the early surge in cases stems from a combination of several factors.

“What we’re seeing is a lack of immune memory to fight off these viruses because of the two years we haven’t seen such high numbers of them,” Nguyen said. “And then, also, we’re all out and about. Nobody’s masking.” 

Flu season is expected to follow closely behind in late October to early November and last through April. Plus, COVID-19 subvariants continue to emerge.

“It’s what pediatricians had been fearful of the last two winters with COVID, and it may actually come true this time because we have three active viruses that can all come together and occur at the same time,” Nguyen said.

Doctors said this is why it’s critical for people to vaccinate their families against both the flu and COVID. An approved vaccine for RSV has yet to be released.

Wearing a mask, proper handwashing and staying home when sick should be implemented to slow the transmission of viruses, Nguyen said.

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