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RSV is surging in Northeast Ohio and affecting young children. Here is what parents need to know.

Rainbow sign outside University Hospitals Rainbow Babies facility in Cleveland.
Tim Harrison
Ideastream Public Media
Bed capacity at UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital has been strained, according to a hospital official.

It’s flu and cold season in Northeast Ohio and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is surging in children, according to hospital officials.

RSV is a cold-like virus that usually causes mild illness in most people, but it can be serious for infants and the elderly.

The number of RSV cases at Cleveland Clinic hospitals has grown steadily for several weeks. Some 46% of children five and under seeking care at clinic facilities tested positive for the virus, the system reported Monday, along with 28% of elementary-age children.

University Hospitals officials said the pediatric intensive care unit treated about 40 cases of RSV so far this month. The number of cases is higher than at this same point in recent years, according to hospital officials.

Bed capacity at UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital has been strained with kids coming in – many of them with RSV, said Dr. Claudia Hoyen, the director of Infection Control.

"We had cases starting in August which is very unusual ... it is definitely a very early RSV season and this one is definitely very busy as well. In terms of (the) number of children that are sick," Hoyen said.

The virus usually arrives after Thanksgiving, but COVID may have altered when the virus circulates in the community, she said.

In the most serious cases, the virus has led to pneumonia and bacterial infections, she said.

“Any time you have a virus, it degrades the tissue in your upper and your lower respiratory tract infection. So that can kind of set kids up for a bacterial infection,” Hoyen said. “Some of these children have pneumonia, some of these children have had ear infections that have settled into the bone behind their ear.”

RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the CDC, symptoms of infection usually include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

It often spreads when kids touch things and don’t wash their hands, she said. Most children at some point will get sick with the respiratory virus and experience mild symptoms that clear up in a week or two.
But premature babies, those with weakened immune systems and very young infants can be at risk for severe illness, according to Hoyen.

If parents notice a child has ear pain, is dehydrated, or has trouble breathing, they shouldn’t hesitate to follow up with their pediatrician or visit the ER, she said.

There is no immunization for RSV. There's also not much parents can do to prevent their child from getting it, besides frequent handwashing, Hoyen said.

Families should also take precautions against other viruses, including vaccination, she said.

“It’s been a very long three years in medicine and we keep going from one surge of something to another,” Hoyen said. “It’s not only important to keep our kids as healthy as possible by protecting them with immunizations, but also to be sure that we don't overwhelm the health care system, as we often did during the COVID.”

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.