by Sel Unite, MD, Pediatrician at Treehouse Pediatrics
Usually I enjoy a little bit of cold weather here in Austin. It’s a welcome break from some of the almost unbearable days of scorching heat in August and September, and it reminds me that Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner. Unfortunately, at least from my perspective as a doctor who takes care of kids, cooler temperatures also mean that cold and flu season is upon us ready to unleash its misery of runny noses, horrible coughs and sleepless nights. Those of you who have already had this unpleasant experience may be familiar with the phrase, “It’s a virus.” I’ve said it enough times in the last couple of months that I sound like a broken record. But it’s true that the majority of the illnesses out there that are making us cough, sneeze, blow our noses, feel sick to our stomach and sore in our throats are caused by these pesky things.
What is a virus anyway? Well, they’re very small infectious particles that can only reproduce when they are inside the cells of living organisms, like us. Once inside our bodies, they can replicate themselves from just a few in numbers to thousands in a matter of hours to days. That’s when we start to feel their effects (vomiting, sneezing, etc). These tiny boogers (sorry, no pun intended) are quite tough, though. Even though they can’t reproduce outside of living organisms, they can survive for hours on other objects like toys, furniture and even our hands.
One of the viruses to be aware of during this time is called RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. It usually crops up between November and April and is at its worst from January to February. Almost everyone has been infected by it by the time they are two years old. Unfortunately, we can keep getting it again and again. For older kids and adults, RSV usually shows up as your typical cough, runny nose, sore throat and even pink eye. But we especially worry about how it may affect our little ones. It is the most common cause of infection of the lungs and airways in the chest in babies less than a year of age and results in up to 120,000 hospital stays each year. Besides young age, other factors that make it more likely to get a “chest infection” include:
- Prematurity (born before 37 weeks gestation)
- Congenital heart disease
- Exposure to secondhand smoke
- Chronic lung disease (BPD or bronchopulmonary dysplasia)
- Babies younger than 6 months of age, especially if they are in daycare
So the next question would be, “How do I avoid getting this nastiness?” And I know that it sounds hokey, but it really is true—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So here’s what we can do:
- Hand washing, hand washing and more hand washing. This may be the single most important thing that we can do to stop spreading all these germs.
- Build a Protective Cocoon If possible, for all our little ones who fall into the risk factors above, limit exposure to child care centers.
- Quit Smoking Avoid exposure to second hand smoke.
- Find Out about Synagis® and How It Works There is a type of injection that is given monthly for the prevention of RSV in infants who qualify. If your infant was born prematurely or has chronic lung disease (BPD) or congenital heart disease, talk with your doctor to see if this medicine is right for you.
- Did I mention hand washing? Here, I mean to sound like a broken record.
Soon enough, these frosty days will give way to warmer ones. I believe the groundhogs came out and predicted that will be sooner rather than later! So hang in there a little longer and if there is only one thing to remember from all of this—Wash Your Hands!
Anselmo “Sel” Unite, MD, is board certified in Pediatrics and is on staff at Treehouse Pediatrics in Round Rock, Texas. He completed his pediatric residency and received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Unite completed his undergraduate work from Southwestern University. He and his wife have two young daughters.