RSV surge: Pediatricians seeing more cases among older children (not just babies)

Pediatricians say they usually they see the most cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, among children 2 and under, but now they're seeing a lot more older children getting exposed, too.

"This year, we did see it start sooner – a little bit earlier in the fall or late summer. And then now, we're seeing more and more cases, and cases in older children, as well," said Dr. Jessica Najarian-Bell, a pediatrician with CentraCare in St. Cloud.

That is the case with 5-year-old Charlie Overlund from Sartell. His Halloween costume this year will feature his favorite teenage mutant ninja turtle, but earlier this week, he wasn't sure he'd get to wear it.

"That was our biggest fear wasn't it – that we weren't going to be healthy in time for Halloween – but it seems like you're getting better, right," Charlie’s mom, Ashli Overlund, asked him.

"I had a fever and a cough, and so I had to have medicine," Charlie said.

Wednesday marked Day 6 of RSV for Charlie. At first, his parents were caught off guard because he’s never had it.

"It was kind of shocking because I thought for sure it was COVID or the flu. RSV wasn't even something that was on my radar," Overlund said.

She she knew babies could get RSV, but was a bit puzzled to see it in someone Charlie’s age. But that’s consistent with what pediatric clinics are seeing, as they fill up with sick children.

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Before the pandemic, Najarian-Bell said the RSV season would usually start closer to winter, but this year, doctors began seeing cases in late summer.

Doctors attribute older children being exposed to two years of masking up and staying at home, not being exposed to COVID and other viruses.

"These children weren't exposed to it and now are just being exposed to it, and so then that's why they're getting sick. Or moms who were pregnant during COVID times were not exposed to the virus and so then the babies are getting it now as well because they didn't get all of those antibodies that sometimes they would from mom," Najarian-Bell said.

There's also been a lot of talk about a potential "triple whammy" this year with RSV, COVID-19 and the flu potentially hitting all at once. Najarian-Bell said it's true there's already been more flu activity and RSV, but it remains to be seen whether there's a COVID-19 surge and how it could affect children this winter.

RSV is most dangerous to newborns. Doctors are also seeing more severe cases, with children needing to be hospitalized. Najarian-Bell said the most common reasons for that are dehydration or a child having trouble breathing.

Charlie's parents had to take him to the clinic in St. Cloud after the longest fever he'd ever had.

"It was terrifying because when you’ve got a fever that lasts as long as it did without breaking," Overlund said.

She said Days 3-5 were the worst, but Charlie’s mutant ninja turtle energy is coming back in full force.

"You're feeling a little bit better bud?" she asked him.

"Yeah, but I want to play," Charlie said.

So what are the warning signs of RSV? Najarian-Bell said if a child is wheezing loudly, struggling to breathe or not staying hydrated – meaning they're not going to the bathroom or having a wet diaper every 6-8 hours – then it's time to call a doctor.