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Charlotte Pediatricians See Increase In Non-COVID Respiratory Illnesses

This time of year, Novant Health pediatrician Sumon Bhowmick is used to seeing patients with classic summertime diagnoses like swimmer’s ear and poison ivy.

But lately, he’s seen a shift.

“Anywhere from 20 to 25% of our patients that are coming in at this particular time are coming in for respiratory illnesses — coughing and congestion and stuffy nose,” Bhowmick said.

This photomicrograph shows the presence of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in an unidentified tissue sample.
Dr. Craig Lyerla
This photomicrograph shows the presence of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in an unidentified tissue sample.

Bhowmick said his office has seen about a 15% increase in respiratory viruses like rhinovirus, parainfluenza and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV. These viruses usually circulate more widely in the fall and winter, causing illnesses and infections like the common cold, croup or pneumonia.

Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital has also seen a recent uptick in respiratory illnesses, according to pediatric infectious disease physician Amina Ahmed. Ahmed said most respiratory viruses spread through droplets released from activities like coughing, sneezing, singing or talking.

When everyone was regularly wearing face masks, social distancing and washing their hands often over the past year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Ahmed said they were protecting against other viruses, too.

Now? Not so much.

“People are interacting. Masks are coming off. And the viruses are spreading just like they would,” Ahmed said. “There are summer viruses, as well. And so any of that lingering virus that was still leftover from the winter is just more likely to spread.”

These viruses can be dangerous for very young children, particularly babies under six months and those with a heart disease or chronic lung condition, according to Ahmed. She said some patients can become seriously ill and may need to use a ventilator. Adults with weak immune systems and chronic medical conditions are also at risk.

The uptick in RSV cases prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a health advisory in June notifying health care providers about “increased interseasonal RSV activity across parts of the Southern United States.” The CDC encouraged providers to test more broadly for RSV “among patients with acute respiratory illness who test negative for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Ahmed, the Atrium pediatric infectious disease physician, said the symptom to look out for is shortness of breath.

“The only time I would recommend ... to get tested for RSV would really be the child that has ... respiratory distress,” she said. “They’re breathing fast. They’re having trouble eating because they’re breathing so fast. Aside from that, you don’t need to know whether your child has RSV.”

But Ahmed added: “The complicating thing now is you can’t tell RSV from parainfluenza or COVID.”

Most likely, a child with trouble breathing right now will be tested for COVID-19 first and then for other respiratory viruses, Ahmed said. But with COVID-19 numbers increasing as the delta variant spreads rapidly in the U.S., including in North Carolina, Ahmed said she thinks the uptick in other respiratory illnesses may not continue.

“If we start to think about a surge — which is very possible given the low vaccination rate ... the masks will — and hopefully, should — go back on,” she said. “I think if the masks go back on, at least to some degree, then we’ll be protected from the other viruses.”

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.