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Here’s what to know about the respiratory disease filling Maryland pediatric hospitals

This 1981 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows an electron micrograph of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV. (CDC via AP)
Centers for Disease Control and
This 1981 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows an electron micrograph of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV. (CDC via AP)

Maryland pediatric hospitals are hitting capacity limits in recent weeks due to a tricky disease floating around called Respiratory Syncytial Virus. That may not sound very familiar, but it’s other name will: the common cold. However, this year kids are getting this particularly hard and hospitals are having to ship children to medical centers in other states or make them wait longer than usual for care.

"We've certainly used some hospitals in Pennsylvania in Northern Virginia, when we don't have the right bed for the right patient in a very timely way” said Dr. Jason Custer, chief of critical care at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital. “Our beds are full every day.”

The reason for the uptick in severe cases is multifactorial, but Dr. Theresa Nguyen, interim chair of pediatrics at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, says COVID is one of the main causes.

For the last two winter seasons, most people have been masked,” she said. “If you're wearing a mask, and you sneeze or you cough, you're not spreading it, and sharing those germs with other people. That's why we didn't see very much of RSV in the last two years. The disadvantage is our body has forgotten its immune memory. Since we haven't seen these viruses in a while, it is something brand new. And we have to mount this whole new immune response.”

Other factors include the possibility of a particularly virulent RSV strain this year.

Symptoms include runny nose, coughing, fever, aches and lethargy. For most adults, RSV is an annoyance and maybe a couple days off of work, but it can have a particularly big impact on small children.

Their lungs are not as strong and developed and can get congested more easily. Nguyen said that’s especially true for kids with chronic respiratory illnesses and babies who are premature.

So, what should you look for if you think you child needs medical attention? Nguyen says there are a few telltale signs.

“Babies and toddlers who are breathing rapidly breathing more than 20 times a minute, they are wanting air and panting to breathe,” she said. “If they are using extra muscles to breathe, meaning they're flaring their nostrils, they're pulling in it their neck, where the Adam's apple is and they are using extra muscles to breathe, usually you can see their ribs.”

For children who are able to talk, parents should look out for kids who are not speaking in complete sentences and need to breathe between words.

Other warning signs are extreme lethargy, not being able to eat because they are in need of air and trouble sleeping because of breathing issues.

Nguyen says parents should not panic and run to the emergency room. Instead, call a doctor and share your observations. Then let the doctor decide the next course of action.

What’s especially odd about RSV this year is that medical experts are seeing it infecting people about two months earlier than in years past.

That may cause problems in the coming months as flu season starts to kick in and COVID cases rise during the winter.

With pediatric hospitals already at capacity, it could put further stress on the medical infrastructure.

Nguyen says the best line of defense for everyone is to get their flu and COVID vaccinations to lessen the spread of disease.

Luckily for most, RSV is just a common cold and usually kids will bounce back in no time.

Editors Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Dr. Theresa Nguyen's title.

Scott is the Health Reporter for WYPR. @smaucionewypr
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