Three viruses to watch out for this winter

03 November 2022 00:00

University of Utah Health Communications

Diseases due to circulating respiratory viruses are increasing rapidly throughout the country. Preventive measures implemented at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic have limited seasonal respiratory diseases. Now that safety measures are more relaxed, healthcare systems have seen an early start for some of these viruses. There are concerns in the health community about a potential “triple demy.”

“The real concern in this term ‘triple demy’ comes from the idea that they can all occur around the same time,” says Andrew Pavia, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. “It could overwhelm a lot of our health care systems.” Those systems are already struggling with staff shortages and burnout after nearly three years of COVID-19.

The combination of rising morbidity and staff shortages can have a crippling impact on health systems. This has already happened in some areas of the country. That’s why it’s important to take steps to protect ourselves and others in the coming months. Here are three respiratory viruses that are on the rise across the country.

1. RSV (respiratory syncytial virus)

RSV is a common infection that causes cold-like symptoms in most people. RSV cases usually increase from late fall to early spring. Both adults and children can contract RSV, but the virus can be more serious for young children and the elderly. RSV can cause bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under one year of age. About 50,000 children are hospitalized for RSV each year.

“Most of us get RSV many times in our lives,” says Pavia. “But when you get it in the first two to three years of life, it can cause a nasty infection with wheezing, copious discharge and difficulty breathing and feeding.”

RSV is also a threat to the elderly. About 177,000 older adults (age 70 and older) are hospitalized for RSV each year. While RSV is a mild cold for most people, it can cause very serious illness in people with weakened immune systems, including pregnant women.

2. Flu

Influenza or the flu is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs. It causes 20,000 to 50,000 deaths each year in the US, except for the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The flu was largely absent in the winter of 2020-21 and was relatively mild last winter.

Flu can cause severe illness, hospitalization and death in people of all ages, but children under two, adults over 65, pregnant women, people with conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, and people with weakened immune systems are more at risk. vulnerable and more likely to become seriously ill.

The good news is that there is a vaccine. “Although the vaccine is not perfect, it is a good tool,” says Pavia. “We’ve been recommending the flu shot for all children for almost two decades to prevent serious illness and hospitalization.” According to Pavia, you become more vulnerable to the flu as you age—the risk of severe flu increases significantly in your 50s and even more so in The 60s and beyond. The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu shot every year.

3. COVID-19

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that causes a wide range of symptoms ranging from mild to severe and often fatal infections. Cases of COVID-19 typically increase in the fall and peak in the winter, although this may depend on emerging variants of the COVID-19 virus. Infectious disease experts like Pavia anticipate an impending spike due to the emergence of several sub-variants of Omicron.

Anyone can get COVID-19, but the elderly, people with certain medical conditions, pregnant women and young babies are at high risk of developing severe disease. Although children are less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19 than adults, some children can still get seriously ill.

“Most children who get sick with COVID-19 are not likely to end up in a hospital or intensive care unit,” says Pavia. “But at any given time we have about a dozen kids in the hospital with COVID-19, so it’s not light or trivial.”

The COVID-19 vaccine is available to anyone six months of age and older. And anyone five and over can get an updated booster. Like the flu shot, the COVID-19 vaccines do not protect you from contracting the virus, but they do help prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

How can you tell the difference between RSV, flu and COVID-19?

The three respiratory viruses can cause cold-like symptoms as well as fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Although there are differences between the three viruses, it’s hard to tell just from their symptoms. The best way to determine what infection you have is to see a doctor and get tested.

It is possible to contract more than one virus at once. Having a virus can lower immunity and increase the risk of getting another infection. If the infections occur together, the symptoms may worsen.

“Last year, we saw a bit of RSV in combination with COVID-19 infection,” says Pavia. Some data show that if children get two viruses at the same time, they are sicker than if they get one of them separately. Pavia says many of the children who were admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit at Intermountain Children’s Hospital last year had both RSV and COVID-19.

Can masks help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses?

Face mask wearing has become widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Pavia says masks are even more effective at preventing the spread of the flu. “Influenza almost completely disappeared in the first year of the pandemic,” says Pavia. “That’s because flu doesn’t transmit as much as COVID-19, so masks have proven to work very well.” Masks also help prevent RSV because they can contain highly contagious snot that can spread , when you sneeze.

It’s always good to be considerate of who’s around you. “You never know if the person you’re standing next to is the parent of a child with cancer or someone with a compromised immune system,” says Pavia. “You may be putting them at enormous risk.”

What else can someone do to protect themselves?

Preventive measures such as wearing a high-quality mask in crowded places, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and staying home when you are sick are good ways to protect yourself and others. But the best way to protect yourself is by getting vaccinated.

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