Another respiratory illness is spreading across the South, CDC warns. What is RSV?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning about RSV, a cold-like respiratory illness, amid a spike in cases across the southern U.S.

The public health agency issued an official advisory on Thursday urging clinicians and caregivers to be on the lookout for the virus, which is known to attack the lungs and airways. Experts said they’ve seen an uptick in positive infections in at least a dozen states, including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina.

“Due to this increased activity, CDC encourages broader testing for RSV among patients presenting with acute respiratory illness who test negative for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” the advisory states. “RSV can be associated with severe disease in young children and older adults.”

Cases of the virus typically peak during the fall and winter, the CDC said, resulting in around 58,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. each year.

Infants and children are at highest risk of severe illness due to RSV, as are older adults who have underlying medical conditions, according to the agency.

Here’s what to know and how to protect yourself and your family:

What is RSV?

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is an upper respiratory illness typically spread through airborne droplets when someone sneezes or coughs, according to the CDC. You can also catch it through direct contact with a contaminated surface.

It’s the most common cause of bronchiolitis, experts say, and pneumonia infections in kids younger than 1.

Signs and symptoms of RSV

RSV usually presents like a cold with symptoms including a cough, headache, runny nose and fever, the CDC says. In younger patients, especially infants, the virus can cause fussiness or irritability, loss of appetite, and lethargy before more common symptoms like a cough or sneezing appear.

While there’s no specific treatment for RSV, public health experts say people usually recover in one to two weeks.

Others can become very ill, however. Each year, 177,000 adults over 65 have to hospitalized and an estimated 14,000 die due to RSV infection, according to CDC data.

Can you be tested for RSV?

Testing typically isn’t required to diagnose a positive RSV infection, according to the American Lung Association. However, doctors can run a blood test or take a mouth swab to confirm.

Additional testing may be needed in more serious cases, experts say, and can include a chest X-ray or CT scan.

Is there a vaccine for RSV?

No. Plans to develop a vaccine and antivirals that are effective against RSV are still in the works, the CDC says.

In 2019, early trials of an experimental RSV vaccine showed promising results by triggering “large increases in RSV-neutralizing antibodies that were sustained for several months,” according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“A vaccine to prevent RSV is a long-sought goal that has eluded us for decades,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said at the time. “The early results of this trial suggest that this structure-based strategy for developing an RSV vaccine may bring that goal within reach.”

How to prevent RSV spread

To slow the spread of RSV, the CDC recommends frequent hand washing, wiping down high-touch surfaces, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, avoiding touching your face and limiting contact with others who may be sick.

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