A highly contagious respiratory illness is hospitalizing El Paso children and infants much earlier in the season than expected.

Respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, usually causes a mild cold. Infants and elderly adults are most susceptible to severe illness, which can lead to hospitalization.

In October, Texas recorded more than 1,000 positive PCR tests for respiratory syncytial virus every week, according to state data.

The Hospitals of Providence in El Paso is seeing an increase in RSV in the pediatric unit, mostly children ages 5 and under. The majority of patients are sick enough to be admitted to the emergency room, a hospital spokesperson told El Paso Matters.

At El Paso Children’s Hospital, there were 288 confirmed cases of RSV in September and October – a more than 150% increase compared to the same time last year, according to numbers shared by a spokesperson. About half of all the RSV cases since August required hospitalization.

Dr. Jeffrey Schuster, chief medical officer at El Paso Children’s Hospital, said it’s unclear why cases are increasing so early compared to years past, including prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not a local phenomenon,” Schuster said. “It’s across Texas and across America that we’re seeing a lot of RSV earlier than we expect. Usually, it’s a December, January, February disease.”

It is possible to catch RSV at the same time as influenza or coronavirus, but Schuster hasn’t seen a patient with all three yet.

Case numbers may have been low the last two seasons because the strategies used against COVID-19 – masking, social distancing and increased hand washing – worked well against influenza and RSV, Schuster said. Earlier in the pandemic, children were also not attending school in person, which could be another contributing factor, he added.

Signs of RSV infection

RSV often causes a cold and people can expect cold-like symptoms, such as a cough, runny nose and fever.

Parents should bring their child to the hospital if they have trouble breathing and see a retraction of the skin in the neck and chest junction with every breath, Schuster said. If the skin is going between the ribs or the belly is going in with every breath, those are signs of trouble breathing and the child should be seen in the hospital.

People should not bring their child to the hospital if they only have a cold because they could infect more vulnerable children and infants – babies born with heart defects and chronic lung disease – who can get extremely sick.

El Paso Children’s Hospital on Oct. 31. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Is there a vaccine for RSV?

There is no vaccine or specific medication that treats RSV.

Premature babies and children under two with chronic disease who meet certain criteria can receive palivizumab, a medication that’s injected monthly to help prevent serious lung disease from RSV. Unlike the COVID-19 and flu shots, this medication is not a vaccine that induces immunity.

Patients hospitalized with RSV receive supplemental oxygen and in the most severe cases, have to be intubated. Babies who have trouble breathing from RSV seem to be staying longer in the hospital now, Schuster said. In the past, most babies went home after two to three days, but now more babies are staying three to four days.

How to prevent getting or spreading RSV

One way people can prevent the spread of RSV is to stay at home when they’re sick, Schuster said. A healthy adult who goes to the office with a cold can give the virus to their coworker, who passes it to their premature baby at home, he gave as an example.

Children who are scheduled for critical surgery should mostly isolate ahead of their appointment to avoid getting sick, he advised.

“Don’t take the baby to Walmart or to the family gathering,” Schuster said. “Don’t take them to parties and don’t take them to the pediatrician’s office because the office is full of sick kids.”

“The worst thing about RSV is that it does not induce good immunity,” he said. “I had chicken pox and after that, I basically can’t get chicken pox again. If you had RSV last year, you can get it every year.”

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...