Like many parents, I have been keeping a close eye on news stories about Enterovirus D68. This respiratory infection has been spreading across the country and making some children quite ill. As the mom of a kid with asthma, I’m particularly concerned. For kids with asthma or a history of wheezing, Enterovirus D68 can start out looking like a garden variety cold but lead to serious trouble breathing.
Enteroviruses are nothing new. Each year, especially in the summer and fall, these common viruses cause 10 to 15 million infections. Most of these illnesses are mild. Symptoms might include colds, rashes, vomiting, low-grade fever, or mouth sores. But sometimes, as with this particular enterovirus, they can become more serious.
“We don’t entirely understand why this strain is causing so much trouble, particularly for children. It may simply be that because children are young, they haven’t had a chance to build up immunity to enteroviruses in general. But what we do know is that Enterovirus D68 causes more trouble for children, especially those with asthma,” says Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
So what’s a parent to do? To start, the same things we would normally do during cold and flu season.
You don’t get Enterovirus D68 randomly. Instead, you get it by coming into contact with body fluids like saliva and nasal secretions. The best way to decrease the chances of catching Enterovirus 68, and many other contagious respiratory infections, is by washing hands often. That goes for you and your child. To make sure kids do a thorough job, have them keep their hands soapy and under the water for about 20 seconds — about the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.
In addition, stay away from people you know are sick, regularly clean common surfaces like doorknobs, avoid sharing cups and utensils, and remind your kids — and yourself — to cough or sneeze into the elbow, not the hands.
If your child has asthma, be extra vigilant about his or her asthma care routine. Make sure that he or she takes all medications as prescribed, especially “controller” medications, such as a steroid inhaler. Regular use of controller medicines help keep airway inflammation at bay and can make all the difference if your child catches Enterovirus D68.
While some doctors’ offices and hospitals can test to see if someone has an enterovirus, only specialized labs can test for specific types of enteroviruses. So it is quite possible that you or your child has had an Enterovirus D68 cold and never knew it. That said, it’s always important to keep an eye on any kid who has a cold.
Dr. McCarthy offers this specific advice. “Most likely it is a simple cold, and nothing serious, but do stay alert for signs of breathing difficulties. These include coughing very frequently, breathing fast or heavy, having trouble talking, or looking pale. These are signs you should get medical attention right away.”
And don’t let this outbreak distract you from making sure your kids get their flu shots. The flu is also very common and can be very hard on kids—again, especially those with asthma.