Parents are being warned to look out for signs of a non-Covid virus that is “rife” in the UK amid a surge in reports of children struggling to breathe.
The British Lung Foundation (BLF) said Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is staging a comeback this winter after lockdown last year meant there were fewer infections than would normally occur.
It is concerned that this year children will have “much lower immunity” at a time when the NHS is already under extreme pressure.
“In the last few weeks, we have noticed a surge in calls from parents who are worried about their child’s breathing,” said Caroline Fredericks, a respiratory nurse who supports the BLF’s helpline. “Most of these parents have never heard of RSV which is worrying.”
RSV is common in babies and children. Almost all will have had it by the time they are two. It may cause a cough or cold but for some it can lead to bronchiolitis, an inflammatory infection of the lower airways which can make it hard to breathe.
The early symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to those of a common cold but can develop over a few days into a high temperature, a dry and persistent cough, difficulty feeding, and wheezing. While many cases clear up in two to three weeks, some children will end up being hospitalised.
“There are steps parents can take to make their child more comfortable at home if their RSV develops into bronchiolitis, such as keeping their fluid intake up, helping them to breathe more easily by holding them upright when feeding and giving them paracetamol or ibuprofen suitable for infants,” said Fredericks.
The BLF has already seen a 400% rise in calls to its helpline from parents worried about their child having breathing difficulties in the last three months compared to the same period the year before. During that time an estimated 1,000 children have required hospital care in England alone, it said.
It is issuing new guidance for parents which includes asking anyone who has a cough or cold to stay away from young children, making sure that anyone who handles their child washes their hands regularly and to avoid smoking around young children and babies.
BLF clinical lead, Dr Andy Whittamore, said: “In general practice, we are seeing a lot of children with coughs and viruses that weren’t circulating last year and so their immunity is lowered.
“Doctors on the ground are concerned that alongside a rapid increase in cases of Covid-19, we are also going to see a surge in diseases like bronchiolitis. Some babies do develop severe symptoms with the RSV virus, and warning signs to look out for include if they refuse to feed, are becoming very breathless or if they are breathing in a shallow or irregular way.”
Chloe-Ann Ford, 22, from the Isle of Wight, said she knows first-hand how terrifying RSV can be as her baby Teddy, who is 12 weeks old, was hospitalised with bronchiolitis caused by RSV last November.
“We had to spend five nights in hospital and Teddy was kept on oxygen,” she said. “On one occasion, he stopped breathing for 28 seconds which was terrifying.
“I’d never heard of it [RSV] before and didn’t know how dangerous it could be. Thankfully, Teddy is now recovered but I want all parents of young children to be aware of RSV and to get medical help if their child finds it hard to feed, becomes very breathless or breathes in a shallow, irregular way. It could save their life.”