Flu season is back in full swing, and there are concerns about another COVID surge. Though we’re well past the days of the monkeypox scare, there is another virus that is even more contagious and dangerous.

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is the latest viral threat we’re facing. Though it is extremely common — it’s said that nearly all children have contracted it by their second birthday — RSV cases are rapidly filling children’s hospitals.

Here is what you need to know about RSV, how it’s contracted, and how it can be treated and prevented.

What is RSV?

The CDC defines RSV as a “common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms.”

RSV and COVID-19 share similar symptoms since they are both respiratory viruses.

RSV can be serious for infants and older adults. It is the most common cause of bronchitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year old in the U.S.

RSV isn’t exclusive to infants and children, however. Older adults (65 years or older), adults with chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, and weakened immune systems are susceptible to RSV.

Refer to the CDC’s website for specific guidance on how to test patients for RSV. Different age groups require different tests.

The Facts

For infants and young children, the most common symptoms of RSV are:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache

Symptoms for more severe cases slightly differ:

  • Fever
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Cyanosis - a bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen

The Figures

On average, 58,000-80,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized due to RSV.

At the time of writing, four out of every 1,000 babies under six months old have been hospitalized due to RSV this season. Two out of every 1,000 babies between six months and one year old have been hospitalized.

Seventeen states in the U.S. have less than one in five beds available for hospitalization. If the flu and COVID trajectories are any indications, RSV cases are set to rise as we enter the winter season.

What can we attribute the stark rise of RSV to? It’s difficult to determine if it has to do with the current uptick in flu cases. The potential rise in COVID cases this winter might also come into play.

How You Can Prevent/Treat RSV

At the time of writing, there is no vaccine for RSV. Though scientists are hard at work on a vaccine, it will likely not be fully developed and tested for at least a few more years.

Doctors usually prescribe a drug called palivizumab (brand name Synagis) for premature infants and children with heart and lung conditions. The medication is dispensed as a series of monthly shots throughout flu season.

If you encounter a patient whose child has RSV, direct them to the nearest doctor’s office or specialty pharmacy if they are trying to get that prescription filled. Synagis is only available through a limited distribution specialty pharmacy network, according to the medication’s website.

If you are a retail independent pharmacist, find out which nearest specialty pharmacy is able to order the medication so you can easily direct patients there.

Preventing RSV infection is similar to preventing infection from COVID or the flu:

  • Wash your hands often
  • Keep your hands off your face
  • Avoid close contact with sick people
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces

These steps can apply to your patients and their children, but also for you and your pharmacy staff.

You should be a seasoned veteran when disinfecting your independent pharmacy’s counters from COVID times, so it should be just like riding a bike.

Check out our “7 Tips for Cleaning Your Independent Pharmacy” blog for a refresher course on keeping your store spotless.

Stop the Spread This Winter

Though RSV is rightly on the minds of everyone, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Not only are there more RSV cases than usual, but the flu is experiencing a similar uptick as well.

COVID-19 still remains, though vaccines and other treatments are readily available — the same goes for the flu. Talk to your patients about getting the latest COVID booster and annual flu shot if they haven’t already.

As an independent pharmacist, communicate clearly with your patients. If they or their children are experiencing symptoms of RSV, advise them to go to a doctor’s office. Let them know about its current severity and the potential of getting the flu or COVID.

We’re entering a stressful time of year, especially in the health and wellness realm. Make your independent pharmacy the healthcare destination that others can depend on in these uncertain times.

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