It’s the time of year when one germ after another makes the rounds and makes us cough. Respiratory infections are particularly troublesome, especially for children and the elderly, and there are more than cold and flu viruses to be aware of.
Respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus, or RSV, is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. Healthy people who get it usually have mild, cold-like symptoms and recover in a week or two. But it can be very serious for babies and older adults. We’re starting to see some cases in Idaho, as we do every year heading into the winter months.
People of any age can get an RSV infection, even after they’ve already had it, but infections for otherwise healthy adults are generally less severe. Premature infants, children younger than 2 with congenital heart or chronic lung disease, and children with weakened immune systems are at the highest risk for severe disease. Adults with compromised immune systems and those 65 and older are also at increased risk of severe illness. Researchers are working on developing a vaccine for RSV, but none is available yet.
Pertussis, or whooping cough, is another respiratory disease that can cause severe illness in infants. It begins as a common cold would, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe a mild cough or fever. But after one or two weeks, severe coughing can begin. Unlike a cold, pertussis can become a series of coughing fits that continue for weeks. It can cause violent and rapid coughing, over and over, until the air is gone from the lungs and the person is forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound. In infants, the cough can be minimal or not at all, but they could have life-threatening pauses in breathing. Symptoms in adults may be mistaken for bronchitis.
So far, we’re seeing only sporadic flu activity in Idaho, so we know the worst is yet to come. In most years, flu season in Idaho really kicks off in January and February, so this is a great time to get the vaccine. Later in the season the odds of getting the flu will go up. Getting the vaccine is your best protection. We expect it to be a better match than last year’s vaccine, but even if it’s not, it still may reduce the severity of the infection if you get sick.
Antibiotics won’t help in most cases of respiratory illness because most are caused by viruses. Pertussis, however, is caused by bacteria, and early treatment is important.
Otherwise, make sure your vaccinations are up to date – it’s not too late to get the flu vaccine! It takes about two weeks for your immune system to respond fully, so if you get it now, you’ll be good and protected for the strains in the vaccine by the time the holidays roll around. Pregnant women and anyone who will be near babies should get the vaccine for Pertussis, as well. And, of course, wash your hands often, cover your coughs and sneezes, and (please!) stay home if you feel sick!
- CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/rsv/
- Idaho Department of Health and Welfare: http://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/Health/DiseasesConditions/RSV/tabid/201/Default.aspx
- DHW on flu: http://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/Health/DiseasesConditions/Influenza/tabid/2505/Default.aspx
- DHW on pertussis (whooping cough): http://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/Health/DiseasesConditions/Pertussis/tabid/700/Default.aspx