HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – An unprecedented rise in Respiratory Syncytial Viruses (RSV) in children is overwhelming hospitals across the Commonwealth and around the country. 

Anyone can get the virus, but children under five and the elderly are the most likely to suffer serious complications from it.

“The virus itself affects the smallest airways in the lungs,” WellSpan Health Pediatrician Dr. Vinitha Moopen said. “When you have those smaller airways filled with mucus, there’s really not much space for there to be oxygen flowing back and forth the way it’s supposed to.”

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Infections usually rise in November but began earlier this year. As a result, The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) said it’s seeing a large increase in the number of children being admitted to its emergency room and intensive care unit. 

“Because we had fewer people infected over the last couple of seasons, [the virus is] coming back with a bit of vengeance,” UPMC Infectious Disease Expert Dr. John Goldman said. “We’ve been masking and social distancing so there’s less pre-existing immunity in the population and as a result, RSV spreads more quickly and causes more severe disease.”

In some cases, hospitals are so overwhelmed that patients need to be transferred to other medical facilities.

“Our pediatric ICU floor in York Hospital was full last week, and I know from trying to admit a patient here, Hershey was full, and LGH was also full. The closest bed I could get was King of Prussia,” Moopen said. 

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Health experts emphasized that severe illness from RSV is rare, but recognize it can have a serious impact on some, which is why some high-risk children may receive what’s called an “immunoglobulin shot” during RSV season.

“It’s only for a select few, like our very, very micro preemie babies, our babies with congenital heart disease, our babies who have had surgery and our babies with chronic lung disease who are on oxygen up until the age of two.”

RSV symptoms are often similar to a cold, but experts urge parents to watch out for signs of respiratory distress, such as shortness of breath. Decreased appetite and irritability are also other symptoms.