By now, most parents have heard of enterovirus D68. This virus, from the same family as many of the regular cold viruses we all know too well, has worked its way across much of the United States since mid-August, and has been diagnosed in many parts of Canada as well.
As a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, I've noticed an increase in the number of kids coming in with typical cold symptoms but with the added concern of difficulty breathing. I've talked with parents about the virus: Some have valid reason for concern, but it's also easy for parents to get swept up in the hype around a virus like this, when they really don't need to.
First, some background on this particular illness. This is not a new virus. There are over 100 different types of enteroviruses, presenting in many different ways and infecting literally millions of children in North America every year. This particular type was first recognized in 1962 but has rarely been detected over the years. Then, out of the blue, a few weeks ago there was a cluster of children presenting with pretty bad breathing issues in the U.S. Midwest. Since then we've seen the largest-ever outbreak of this particular virus. Why have we had this explosion? It's hard to say but it's likely related to the fact that these kids haven't been exposed to this virus and therefore have no immunity to it. (It spreads by droplets from the nose or throat and from touching infected surfaces and then touching mouths, noses etc.)
Every now and then, an illness like EV-D68 sweeps through communities, and, understandably, it scares parents. My advice when this happens: Don't panic.
In this case, the vast majority of children who develop coughs and colds likely will not have EV-D68. And this is likely to be true of other outbreaks as well (remember SARS and H1N1?).
Parents should be attuned to their children's health and looking out for symptoms. Know the signs of serious illness and seek help if you notice them, but don't automatically assume the worst.
So, how do you minimize the risk of getting infected with an illness like EV-D68 in the first place? The same way you avoid any virus. It boils down to following the age-old advice we likely all got from our grannies. Handwashing frequently and properly (for at least 20 seconds) is still the single best way of not sharing germs. If you're not near soap and water, your child can use an alcohol-based sanitizer, though if the hands are actually soiled (as may be the case with little ones), soap and water will always be better.
It also pays to avoid being coughed on by those who are ill, whenever possible. Public-health experts say you need to be at least six feet (1.8 metres) away from people who are sick – this can be really tricky.
With any illness, if your child is simply not themselves, disengaged in their normal activities, experiencing loss of appetite or unusual fatigue, consider consulting your health-care provider. When it comes to EV-D68, if you notice your child having any difficulty breathing, a trip to the emergency room is warranted.
Despite our best efforts, we can't completely safeguard against illnesses. But one virus we can better protect ourselves against is the flu, by getting our flu shots. In fact, most children can now get their flu immunization as a nasal spray rather than a shot, perhaps making it easier and more palatable.
It makes sense to give our children the benefit of protection against illnesses where we have at least made some progress.
Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Dr. Jeremy Friedman is the chief of pediatric medicine and associate pediatrician-in-chief at Sickkids Hospital in Toronto, and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto. He has written a number of books for parents including bestsellers Canada's Baby Care Book and Canada's Toddler Care Book, and A to Z of Children's Health (Robert Rose publishers, October, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @DrJFriedman