By now, you’ve seen the headlines: “Unidentified Respiratory Virus Likely to Hit Kids Across Country” and “Mysterious Respiratory Illness Sickens More Than 1,000 Kids Across U.S.” But what exactly is this unknown sickness and how likely is it to affect your child?
Believe it or not, this “unidentified respiratory virus” does, in fact, have a name—enterovirus D68. Enterovirus D68 is a fast-spreading virus related to hand, foot, and mouth disease. Mild symptoms may include fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough, and body aches. The more severe symptoms associated with an enterovirus 68 infection are a severe cough, followed by difficulty breathing and wheezing. These symptoms occur most commonly in children with a history of asthma.
Contrary to popular belief, enterovirus D68 is not a new respiratory virus—it’s been around since the early 1960’s. However, this is the first time an outbreak has occurred on such a large scale. Enterovirus D68 is spread through coughing, sneezing, or touching people or things infected with the virus, and then coming into contact with the nose or mouth. It is believed that the recent start of school is responsible for the large number of infected children.
While the above description probably put-to-rest some of your fears, Urgent Care for Kids thought it best to interview a medical professional and gather her thoughts on enterovirus D68. The Urgent Care for Kids Austin-are Medical Director, Dr. Whitenton, answers some of the most common questions below:
What is human enterovirus D68 and how does it differ from the common cold?
Enterovirus D68 is one of the many germs that causes colds. Every year, a number of viruses are responsible for the “cold” part of cold and flu season, and there are different viruses that circulate each year. Some cold viruses cause mild illness, and some have potential to cause more severe symptoms. This school year, health care providers have already noticed increased numbers of sick kids and it appears this increase is due to enterovirus D68. So far the illness has been found in less than half the states in the U.S., but illnesses spread quickly and it may eventually be found in every state. It causes the same kind of symptoms that usual colds do, such as fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, and body aches, but in children the symptoms have sometimes included respiratory distress and wheezing. Healthy adults don’t seem to be having the same kind of severe symptoms, probably because at some point in childhood, they were exposed to it during cold and flu season and they still have some antibodies left over to fight it. Most of the time, colds in healthy children don’t cause significant problems, but enterovirus D68 has been responsible for increased numbers of kids being hospitalized due to respiratory problems, and some of them have been sick enough for admission to intensive care. On a positive note, no children have died so far as a complication of the illness.
What can I do to protect my child from human enterovirus D68? Is there a vaccine?
The best defense against any illness, including enterovirus D68, is hand washing. For the protection of others, it’s also necessary to keep children home from school and daycare when they are sick to limit spread of the illness in the community. Washing hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer removes the germs from hands and limits spread of enterovirus D68 and other illnesses. When kids or adults are ill, coughing into the bent part of the elbow keeps germs from getting on hands in the first place. No vaccine exists for enterovirus D68, just as we do not have vaccines for every strain of the thousands of other cold viruses that have been identified.
My child suffers from asthma, and the media says I should be particularly worried about enterovirus D68. Why is this?
Enterovirus D68 has been found to cause respiratory distress and wheezing in children who do not normally have asthma, so it’s important to be aware that the virus may more easily cause an asthma exacerbation in children known to have asthma or other chronic lung problems. Following the child’s asthma action plan developed by the primary care provider will address any breathing issues caused by enterovirus D68, but if things aren’t improving by following the plan, seeking urgent or emergency care may be necessary.
If I suspect that my child has contracted enterovirus D68, what should I do?
Most children will not need any special treatment for enterovirus D68 because it’s most likely to cause usual cold symptoms. Generally, no testing is done at healthcare facilities to identify which virus is causing a cold because they resolve without treatment, so knowing the strain of viruses causing colds does not aid in treating them. This is also true of enterovirus D68. For most of the symptoms, supportive care such as fluids, fever reducer, and rest are all that is needed. If symptoms include wheezing, fast breathing, shortness of breath, or other things not usually seen with an ordinary cold, getting help from a healthcare provider is recommended. It’s important to remember that antibiotics won’t help cure a cold because colds are caused by viruses, and viruses don’t respond to antibiotics. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can contribute to antibiotic resistance seen in bacterial illnesses. Cough medications are not recommended in children, but a cool mist humidifier may help soothe coughing at night.
As always, if your child is feeling ill, contact your primary care physician to identify the best course of care.