Parkview Regional Medical Center’s Dr. R. Scott Stienecker started noticing an unusual trend late last month.
It’s not strange for the hospital to have an increasing number of cases of respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, at this time of year, he said. But the patients were different.
They were grown-ups.
RSV usually strikes young children, especially babies, in whom it can be so severe as to become lethal. Children usually are exposed to the virus in the first few years of life and develop a mild case that leads to long-lasting immunity.
However, last week, Parkview’s pediatrics department was full with more than two dozen cases of RSV, said Stienecker, medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention.
And the hospital also had about a dozen adult patients, he said.
“That’s rather rare,” Stienecker said.
The reason – and the extent of the illness in the community – is far from clear, he said.
RSVin adults typically causes a low-grade fever, inflamed sinuses, a sore throat and a cough, typically with small to moderate amounts of sticky phlegm.
There also may be chills and muscle aches – “though not as severe as the flu,” Stienecker said.
As the population gets older, people are more likely to have somewhat depressed immune systems and chronic diseases such as heart or lung disease that lead to easier infections, he explained.
And new tests that allow doctors to take a throat culture and test for an array of organisms at once may be leading to more diagnoses of an illness that previously would be passed off as just a bad cold or the flu, Stienecker said.
But because RSV can cause only mild-to-moderate symptoms, there may be many more cases circulating in people who don’t get hospitalized.
“It tends to be very variable in adults,” he said of adult RSV.
But it can take a severe turn especially if a secondary infection such as bronchitis or pneumonia develops, he added.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young children are more likely to develop severe illnesses because their airways are smaller.
CDC experts say RSV is the most common cause of inflammation of the small airways and pneumonia in children younger than 1 in the United States.
Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner, said nationally about 177,000 U.S. adults are hospitalized with RSV, and about 14,000 die.
About 75,000 to 125,000 children are hospitalized annually for RSV in the United States, and about 500 die.
“I think at this time of year, people think if they had a flu shot, they don’t have to worry about respiratory infections,” McMahan said.
But RSV frequently circulates in late fall and early winter, and there is no vaccine to prevent it, McMahan said.
Local school officials said they’ve seen a typical rise in absences in recent weeks.
Fort Wayne Community Schools has have had more absences than it might in September but no big spike, FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
“We’ve actually had our share of upper respiratory illnesses recently, but parents and staff members aren’t saying it’s RSV,” she said.
RSV in adults typically lasts five to seven days and can be treated with over-the-counter cough-and-cold medicine, rest and fluids, Stienecker said. He also recommended people stay home from work and out of crowds to avoid spreading the virus.
Handwashing and covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing are important.
If symptoms last more than 10 days or become severe, a doctor should be consulted, he said.
Stienecker said the virus doesn’t persist on surfaces, but it does spread from one person to another through contact with the mucous membranes of the nose or mouth.Typically, the route of transmission is from child to child or child to adult.
That puts parents and grandparents at risk and anyone who works with children, he added.
“So, as always if you are older and have a fever, (it’s) best to check in with your doctor to see if they want you to come in,” McMahan said.
“And, if you are the adult child, make sure you check in with your parents if they ‘just have a cold’ because it can turn into something more serious more quickly than you would expect.”