As RSV spreads among kids, what should parents look out for?

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) lasts longer than the common cold, and it leads to coughs, congestion, and difficulty breathing. Photo by Shutterstock.

Orange County health officials on Monday declared a state of emergency over a serious rise in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which disproportionately affects kids, but the elderly can experience it too. It comes on top of the flu season and lingering COVID pandemic.

Across Orange County, 95% of pediatric beds are filled, while Children’s Hospital of OC (CHOC) has expanded capacity at its emergency department. That’s according to Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician at CHOC.

She says, “We are still hitting record numbers, more than we've ever seen historically. And that record keeps breaking a few times a week.”

She explains that this virus lasts longer than the common cold, and it leads to coughs, congestion, difficulty breathing, and in some cases, death. It has no cure, and can only be treated with supportive care such as suctioning out nasal discharge.

Parents should watch whether their kids cough with difficulty breathing, she advises.

“You look at your child's belly, look under the shirt to see if they're really, really using those muscles to breathe. And if they're having a difficult time, that is a red flag to go directly to either your doctor that day, the urgent care, or the emergency department. And then the other thing … is that they're just not drinking. Sometimes these kids are feeling so crummy, they don't want to drink, they don't want to eat, and they can get severely dehydrated.”

Why is this season so bad? Williamson says one theory is that kids haven’t been exposed to many illnesses during the pandemic.

“Kids who are maybe 2 to 3 years old now, who may have had RSV when they were younger, haven't had it. So now we're seeing newborns, all the way up to kids who were indoors through the pandemic earlier on. And so everybody's getting sick all at once.”

Williamson points out that vaccines for the flu and COVID don’t prevent RSV, but they stop you from having different viruses simultaneously.

Late-stage trials for the RSV vaccine are happening, and she says kids should get them when possible.



  • Dr. Katherine Williamson - pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of OC (CHOC), past president of the Orange County chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics