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Respiratory viral season is here

If you are like our family, visits to the tissue aisle at the grocery store have been up this year. Yes, COVID-19 is still a thing, but I’m talking more generally about respiratory viral season. This year is shaping up to be a tough one.

Since early 2020, we have all been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Public health measures such as social distancing, hand-washing, respiratory hygiene (covering those coughs and sneezes) and mask wearing have been an integral part of our response. While our practice of these measures has intensified as a result of COVID-19, they are actually quite effective measures in preventing the spread of many other respiratory viruses.

In pre-pandemic times, late autumn, winter and early spring are high season for infections such as influenza, the common cold and a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV – more about that later). This is due to multiple factors, including colder/drier weather, increased public gatherings and the fact that we tend to spend more time indoors.

Our increased observance of healthy behaviors these last few years has led to decreased spread of these common respiratory viruses. However, this year as people have begun to return to their usual routines, respiratory virus season is back with a vengeance.

Early reports of seasonal flu activity indicate that this flu season may be the worst in many years. Surveillance has detected higher rates of flu in the United States than is typical for this time of year. The same is true for a less commonly discussed but equally important virus, known as respiratory syncytial virus – RSV.

RSV is a common respiratory virus that circulates each year in the U.S., usually from late fall through early spring. In most people, RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than 1 year old in the U.S. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.

RSV can also cause serious illness among elderly people. There is no specific treatment for RSV infection, though researchers are working to develop vaccines and antivirals (medicines that fight viruses).

It is going to be important this year, especially as we continue to gather for the holidays, to take precautions to decrease the spread of respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, flu and RSV. People who are sick should avoid close contact, especially with vulnerable infants and older people as well as those with a compromised immune system. Everyone should continue to practice good respiratory hygiene and wash hands frequently.

It is also very important to remain up to date on all recommended vaccines, including the seasonal flu vaccine and the COVID-19 bivalent vaccine booster.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics, works for the Indian Health Service.