UConn Health Experts Weigh in on RSV Surge

Experts recommend continued vigilance to prevent spread of all respiratory illnesses, including influenza, COVID-19

Entrance to the emergency department at UConn Health in Farmington, Connecticut. November 13, 2019 (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health photo)

Add RSV to COVID-19 and influenza on the list of ailments to worry about when you encounter someone with cold symptoms.

Respiratory syncytial virus, often characterized by cough, fever, and runny nose, tends to be most problematic in infants and toddlers, and has been straining pediatric hospitals.

Dr. David Banach outdoor portrait
Dr. David Banach, is UConn Health’s hospital epidemiologist. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)

But RSV also can cause problems for adults, giving it something else in common with COVID-19 and flu, in addition to symptoms.

“In general, the condition is less severe in adults than young children, but the elderly and immunocompromised can have more severe illness,” says Dr. David Banach, UConn John Dempsey Hospital epidemiologist. “We have had patients admitted to the hospital with RSV infection.”

Dr. Alise Frallicciardi, medical director of emergency medicine, says the UConn John Dempsey Hospital Emergency Department has seen more pediatric patients over the past few months than it normally does, in part because of the RSV surge.

Dr. Alise Frallicciardi portrait white coat
Dr. Alise Frallicciardi is UConn Health’s medical director of emergency medicine. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)

“The exact rates of RSV presentations are not really known as we don’t necessarily test for RSV when a patient is seen in the ER and has symptoms that would not necessitate hospitalization,” Frallicciardi says. “When a patient presents to the ED (ours or others) with symptoms of a respiratory viral illness (COVID, flu, RSV or other viruses) we do vital signs and a physical exam. If there is respiratory distress and a low oxygen level, we do our best to support them with oxygen.”

Patients younger than 16 would need transfer to a children’s hospital for admission.

Outside of the hospital, the recommended treatment for RSV is similar to managing cold symptoms, including “humidified air, rest, nasal aspiration if applicable, and encouragement of hydration,” Frallicciardi says.

Because upper respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, cough, and fever can be harbingers of RSV, influenza, COVID-19, or a common cold, before trying to figure out which one it is, the best next step is to figure out how not to spread it.

“Getting vaccinated continues to be the best defense against severe illness from influenza and COVID-19,” Banach says. “It’s not too late to get your flu shot if you haven’t already, and keeping current with the COVID-19 vaccination, including the bivalent booster, is recommended.”

In addition to vaccination, the familiar advice of frequent handwashing, staying home when sick, avoiding gatherings, and masking still rings true as the best way to reduce the spread of germs — whichever kind they are.