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Why Am I Hearing So Much About RSV? What Can I Do to Stay Healthy This Winter?

Health Op-ed by Lisa Y. Harris, M.D.

Dr. Lisa Y. Harris, Vice President of Medical Affairs at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Photo provided.

From a surge in RSV cases to COVID and the flu, the news headlines can feel overwhelming.

Dr. Lisa Y. Harris, vice president of medical affairs at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield has answers to common questions about RSV and staying healthy this winter.

Q: Dr. Harris, we are hearing a lot in the news about respiratory syncytial virus – or RSV – and how cases are soaring. What is RSV and who should be worried about it?

RSV is a respiratory virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms in otherwise healthy children and adults. While this virus is commonly associated with infants or young children, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized with RSV each year. For older adults with chronic heart or lung disease – or those with weakened immune systems – RSV can be fatal if it turns into bronchiolitis (lung inflammation) or pneumonia (lung infection).

Q: What are the symptoms of RSV and how does someone know if they need to see a doctor?

Early symptoms of RSV include a runny nose, loss of appetite, a cough which may include wheezing, and sometimes a fever. RSV can make conditions like asthma, COPD, and congestive heart failure worse. You’ll want to see a doctor immediately if you begin to have problems breathing. Also, if after a couple of days your symptoms are getting worse instead of better, you should see your doctor.

Q: We are also hearing a lot about the flu already this year, and we know COVID is still around. What is the latest on those illnesses?

We are in “flu season” from now until at least February. The flu can be serious especially in older adults, young children, pregnant women, and nursing home residents. The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. This will help protect you as well as anyone who is particularly vulnerable. And while COVID cases are down, you should stay up to date on vaccines to help prevent a more serious infection if exposed. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about which vaccine is best for you. The good news is getting a flu vaccine or COVID booster is as simple as stopping by your local pharmacy. Visit vaccines.gov to find a vaccination site near you.

Q: What’s your best advice for staying healthy this winter?

Stay up to date on your vaccinations. Even if you do get sick, being vaccinated can help keep your symptoms mild. Make sure you wash your hands often for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. Frequently use hand sanitizer when out – maybe carry a sanitizer in your purse or car, too. Many people are choosing to continue to wear masks in public or in large gatherings to help protect themselves and others – this is a great idea especially if you have a weaker immune system. Finally, avoid close contact with people who are sick and stay home if you are not feeling well.

~ Lisa Y. Harris, M.D., is vice president of medical affairs at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. She is a fellow of both the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a certified physician executive through the American Association of Physician Leaders. Board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics, Dr. Harris has been in clinical practice since 1995.