Flu, RSV and the common cold: Winter viruses are filling up hospitals with sick kids

COVID-19 didn’t just affect schools, concerts and vacations – it disrupted other viruses, too.

Cases from common respiratory infections have been historically low the past few years, health experts say, as offices closed, students learned virtually, and Americans wore masks to combat the coronavirus. But with school in full swing and winter viruses returning to seasonal patterns, hospitals across the country are beginning to fill up with sick kids.

“We are continuing to see a very high number of sick children with various respiratory problems,” said Dr. Stan Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care in Houston. “It was already pretty high before school started, but it has clearly gotten worse and faster than it typically takes.” Health experts say most hospital admissions are dominated by respiratory syncytial virus, rhinoviruses and enteroviruses, which mostly cause coldlike symptoms, including a runny nose, sneezing, coughing and a fever.

But a growing number of young children are going to the emergency room this year, as they lack immunity from prior infection, said Dr. Elizabeth Schlaudecker, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “A lot of children everywhere are getting these viruses for the first time in rapid succession,” she said. “It’s a strain on the health care system because some of these kids are more sick or require medical attention.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health alert warning physicians to prepare for an increase of enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), which has been linked to a rare but serious condition called acute flaccid myelitis. While AFM cases are still rare, the results can be devastating. It affects the nervous system, causing muscle weakness that sometimes leads to permanent paralysis. More than 90% of cases occur in young children, according to the CDC.