What to know about respiratory illness striking kids

The headlines about the potentially life-threatening enterovirus 68 are alarming.

According to media reports, the respiratory illness may be behind the hospitalization of hundreds of children throughout the Midwest and South. It does not appear to have been reported in North Texas, but it is said to be spreading rapidly across the country.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday warned people to be on alert, as hospitalizations are higher than would be expected for this time of year.

Still, Dr. Cedric Spak, M.D., an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, said he doesn’t see reason to panic.

“These kinds of viruses, especially with kids, can have almost an explosive potential,” Dr. Spak said. “It will kind of burn through, a lot of kids get sick and then a lot of kids get better.”

Enteroviruses generally are not uncommon, causing about 10 to 15 million infections annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anyone can be infected with them, “But infants, children, and teenagers are more likely to get infected and become sick,” according to the CDC. “That’s because they do not yet have immunity (protection) from previous exposures to the viruses.”

Enterovirus 68 is thought to be less common than other enteroviruses and the symptoms can be more severe. Children with a history of asthma or wheezing are reportedly more susceptible. The Washington Post offers a good explainer on the virus, including the fact that it typically spreads through “coughing, sneezing, or touching people or things infected with the virus and coming into contact with the nose or mouth.”

Children exhibiting symptoms ought to stay home from school. But Spak also noted that it isn’t always a bad thing for children to be exposed to certain illnesses, so as to strengthen their immune systems when they get older.

That said, parents of children with asthma or a history of wheezing do need to be wary of anything that may exacerbate those symptoms.

“There is no vaccine for enterovirus, there is no treatment,” Spak said. “It usually runs its course and kids get better. Fortunately, this is not one of the infectious diseases that I think should present a lot of concern to parents.”

About the author

Scott Goldstein
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Scott is a former Dallas newspaper reporter. His father and two brothers are doctors, so healthcare is his family business.

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What to know about respiratory illness striking kids