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A respiratory bug affecting children is spiking in Florida emergency rooms

The virus known as RSV is common, but severe cases could lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Local emergency rooms are filling up this time of year, thanks to the flu. Now another culprit is on the rise, causing wheezing, sneezing and possibly more serious symptoms.

The respiratory syncytial virus leads to infection in the lungs and respiratory tract, and is common this time of year. While it causes only cold-like symptoms in adults and children older than 5, premature infants and babies with chronic lung, heart or autoimmune issues can become severely ill from it.

Doctors refer to the virus as RSV, and Florida is experiencing a rise in cases.

Dr. Patricia Emmanuel [Courtesy of USF Health]

“We see a lot of RSV this time of year, but it usually spikes at different times than influenza,” said Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, chair of pediatrics at USF Health. “It causes the sniffles and sore throats in adults, but it can really wreak havoc on premature infants. It gets into the lower respiratory tract and can cause pneumonia or bronchiolitis.”

RELATED: Tampa Bay flu season heats up with outbreaks in Hillsborough schools

The Florida Department of Health recorded five RSV outbreaks since July and one pediatric death.

By mid-November, 7 percent of children under 5 discharged from Florida hospitals and urgent care centers were diagnosed with RSV symptoms, the state reported. That was up from 5 percent at the height of the season last year and 4 percent the previous year.

Florida’s season for RSV lasts longer than most other parts of the country and has distinct regional patterns, according to the health department. While the entire state is currently “in season” for the virus, Tampa Bay’s most active time for RSV extends from August to March.

The emergency room at AdventHealth Tampa has seen the number of RSV cases double from October to November. About 30 cases have been reported so far this month, said Dr. Michael Patch, an emergency room physician.

“It’s hard to pinpoint why we’re seeing this spike,” Patch said, adding it could be due to drastic weather changes people experience when they travel this time of year.

Symptoms of RSV include congestion or runny nose, a dry cough, low-grade fever, sore throat and headaches. In severe cases, it can cause wheezing, difficulty breathing and cyanosis — a bluish coloring of the skin due to lack of oxygen. Doctors can diagnose the virus with a swab in the nose.

“There are hundreds of strains of viruses that cause respiratory problems this time of year, and RSV is just one of them,” said Dr. Tina Ardon, a family medicine physician with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. “RSV might be more rampant in our communities than we think because it presents as a mind cold most of the time.”

Most cases aren’t severe. And RSV is so common that most infants have it once by the time they’re 2 years old, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“We get asked a lot about when is it time to bring a kid to the ER,” Patch said. “The best time is when you notice rapid breathing, like if the child is using his abdominal muscles to breathe, if he has a high fever or you see a change in color around the lips.”

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The virus spreads through droplets, usually when sneezing or coughing and can live on surfaces for long periods of time. Doctors recommend hand washing, especially around the holidays, to keep this virus and others away.

“It’s a good idea to keep people out of the baby’s face around the holidays,” Emmanuel said. “The most common way infants are going to get this is from family members.”

There is no vaccine for RSV, Emmanuel said.

“But there is a monthly micro antibody infusion available. The patient criteria for that is pretty strict, however. It must be a significant case and it’s only for infants," she said. "So unfortunately, most of what we can do is just supportive care, like provide oxygen or fluids.”

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