Tag: RSV

It’s Not Always the Flu When You Get Sick During Cold and Flu Season

We hear a lot about flu season.

It typically starts in late fall, peaks in mid-to-late winter, and can continue through early spring.

Cold and Flu Season Viruses

It’s important to understand that a lot more is going on, and going around, during flu season than just the flu.

That’s why it is likely more appropriate to think of flu season as just a part of the overall cold and flu season that we see during the late fall to early spring.

During cold and flu season, in addition to the multiple strains of the flu, we see diseases caused by:

  • respiratory adenovirus – can cause bronchitis, colds, croup, viral pneumonia, pink eye, and diarrhea
  • Human metapneumovirus (HMPV) – can cause bronchiolitis, colds, and viral pneumonia
  • Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs) – can cause bronchiolitis, bronchitis, colds, croup, or viral pneumonia
  • rhinovirus – the classic common cold
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – can cause wheezing and bronchiolitis in younger children, but colds in older kids and adults
  • seasonal coronavirus – can cause colds, bronchitis, and viral pneumonia
  • norovirus – diarrhea and vomiting
  • rotavirus – diarrhea and vomiting, was much more common in the pre-vaccine era

That there are so many different respiratory viruses that can cause bronchiolitis, colds, croup, and flu-like illnesses helps explain why some kids get sick so many times during cold and flu season.

It also helps explain why some folks think they might have gotten the flu despite having been vaccinated, especially in a year when the flu vaccine is very effective.

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

So how do you know if you have the flu or one of these flu viruses during cold and flu season?

Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.
Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.

While the symptoms can be similar, flu symptoms are usually more severe and come on more suddenly.

Can’t you just get a flu test?

While rapid flu tests are fast and easy to do, they are likely not as accurate as you think.

“This variation in ability to detect viruses can result in some people who are infected with the flu having a negative rapid test result. (This situation is called a false negative test result.) Despite a negative rapid test result, your health care provider may diagnose you with flu based on your symptoms and their clinical judgment.”

CDC on Diagnosing Flu

If your pediatrician is going to diagnose your child with the flu because of their symptoms, even if they have a negative flu test, then why do the test?

Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both.
Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both flu virus strains.

Can you test for all of the other viruses that are going around during cold and flu season?

Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.
Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.

Sure.

The real question is should you.

Like the rapid flu test, many pediatricians can do an RSV test in their office. But like many other viruses, there is no treatment for RSV and the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends against routine RSV testing. Whether your child’s test is positive or negative, it is not going to change how he or she is treated.

And the other viruses? Not surprisingly, there are respiratory panels that can test for most or all of these viruses. They also usually include flu and RSV.

The problem with these tests is cost. They are not inexpensive, and again, in most cases, the results aren’t going to change how your pediatrician treats your child.

And they all involve sticking a nasal swab far up your child’s nose…

What About Strep?

While strep throat can occur year round, it does seem to be more common in the winter and spring.

And while you can certainly have two different infections at the same time, such as strep throat and the flu, it is important to remember that the rate of strep throat carriers is fairly high. These are kids who regularly test positive for strep, even though they don’t have an active group A strep infection.

During cold and flu season, if kids routinely get a “strep/flu” combo test, it is possible, or even likely, that many of the positive strep tests are simply catching these carriers.

Remember that a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, and pink eye are not typical symptoms of strep throat and are more commonly caused by cold viruses. Adenovirus is especially notorious for causing a sore throat, fever, pink eye, runny nose, with swollen lymph nodes = pharyngoconjunctival fever.

Kids who are likely to have strep throat usually have a sore throat, with red and swollen tonsils, and may have swollen lymph nodes, fever, stomach pain, and vomiting, but won’t have typical cold symptoms.

Why does it matter?

Viral causes of a sore throat don’t need antibiotics, while a true strep infection does.

And remember that none of the other cold and flu viruses need antibiotics either, unless your child gets worse and develops a secondary bacterial infection.

What to Know About Cold and Flu Season Viruses

Flu isn’t the only virus that is going around during cold and flu season. Many others can cause flu-like illnesses, croup, bronchiolitis, or just a cold.

More on Cold and Flu Season Viruses

Treating Hard to Control RSV

With a cough, wheezing, and trouble breathing that can linger for weeks, all RSV infections probably seem like they are hard to control, especially since up to 2% of kids, mostly high-risk infants, with RSV require hospitalization.

Still, it’s important to remember that for many kids, RSV is just a cold.

Understanding RSV

Since there is no cure or treatment, it is best to learn to protect your kids from RSV.
Since there is no cure or treatment, it is best to learn to protect your kids from RSV.

The first thing to understand about RSV is that it isn’t a disease.

Instead, RSV, or the respiratory syncytial virus, can cause many different kinds of upper and lower respiratory infections, ranging from the common cold and croup to bronchiolitis and viral pneumonia.

And almost all kids get sick with RSV at some point during the first few years of their life, especially if they are in daycare.

Fortunately, although RSV can cause life-threatening infections, especially in high-risk infants, the great majority of  children get over their symptoms without any special treatments.

And infants who are the most high risk, including premature babies who were born at less than 29 weeks, can get five monthly doses of palivizumab (Synagis) during RSV reason to reduce their chances of getting sick. Infants with hemodynamically significant heart disease or chronic lung disease of prematurity can also get palivizumab.

Treating RSV

Many of the classic treatments for RSV have now fallen out of favor with pediatricians. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatricians now advises against using albuterol breathing treatments, epinephrine, steroids, or chest physiotherapy (CPT) for infants with RSV bronchiolitis.

What’s left?

Not much, except pushing your child to drink and treating cold symptoms as possible.

The AAP even advises against routinely testing kids for RSV. That makes sense, since there is no treatment, kids can sometimes be contagious for 3 to 4 weeks, long after they have returned to daycare without symptoms, and other viruses can cause similar symptoms.

Instead, if your child has symptoms of RSV, especially if she was around someone else with RSV symptoms about two to eight days ago or is simply in daycare during RSV season (usually November to April), then it is safe to assume that your child has RSV.

Also understand that antibiotics have no role in the treatment of uncomplicated RSV infections. RSV is a virus. Antibiotics do not work against viral infections.

Going to Day Care with RSV

Since many kids who get RSV are in day care, the million dollar question often becomes, when can my child with RSV go back to day care?

“Most minor illnesses do not constitute a reason for excluding a child from child care, unless the illness prevents the child from participating in normal activities, as determined by the child care staff, or the illness requires a need for care that is greater than staff can provide.”

AAP Red Book 2015

Although I once had the manager of a day care argue with me that a child needed to test RSV negative before being allowed back into her day care, kids can usually go back, even if they still have cold symptoms, as long as they:

  • don’t have a fever for 24 hours
  • don’t have any trouble breathing
  • are not fussy or irritable

Since these kids will likely be contagious, the AAP recommends that “In child care centers, good hygiene practices should be used by the staff and the children, including frequent and thorough hand washing.”

Treating Hard to Control RSV

If your child has RSV symptoms and isn’t getting better, ask yourself these questions and bring the answers to your pediatrician or seek quick medical attention:

“Some youngsters with bronchiolitis may have to be hospitalized for treatment with oxygen. If your child is unable to drink because of rapid breathing, he may need to receive intravenous fluids.”

American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Do you think your child’s symptoms are hard to control, not because they are getting worse, but rather because they are lingering for several weeks, which can be normal when young kids have RSV?
  • Does your newborn or infant under two or three months have a fever (temperature at or above 100.4F/38C)?
  • Is your child having trouble breathing, such as breathing fast or hard, with chest retractions (chest caving in), nasal flaring, trouble catching his breath, or a non-stop, continuous cough?
  • Do you see any signs that your child isn’t getting enough oxygen, including that “his fingertips and the area around his lips may turn a bluish color?”
  • Is your child dehydrated, with less urine output, dry mouth, or no tears?
  • Does your child have any medical problems that put her at higher risk for a severe RSV infection, including extreme prematurity, having complex heart disease, chronic lung disease of prematurity, or immune system problems?
  • Is your child lethargic, which doesn’t simply mean that he is just playing less, but rather that he is actually hard to wake up and is maybe skipping feedings?

If your child with RSV is getting worse, although there aren’t any special treatments to make the RSV infection go away, supportive care is available to help your child through it, including IV fluids and supplemental oxygen. Those who are most sick sometimes end up on a ventilator to help them breath, and tragically, some infants with RSV die.

What To Know About Treating Hard to Control RSV

RSV is never really easy to control for infants and toddlers, as there is no treatment or cure, but fortunately, most kids do not have severe symptoms that require hospitalizations.

More Information About Treating Hard to Control RSV

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