DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m very worried about the new enterovirus I’m hearing about. What can I do to protect my kids against it?
Enterovirus D68 is a virus causing an epidemic of respiratory infections. It has been spreading across the news and across the country, making some children quite ill. Infection with the virus can cause nothing more than a garden-variety cold, but sometimes it can lead to serious breathing trouble, particularly for kids with asthma or a history of wheezing.
Enteroviruses are nothing new. Each year, 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.
So what should you do to protect your kids? To start, do the same things you would normally do during cold and flu season. As with other cold and flu viruses, people get enterovirus D68 by coming into contact with body fluids like saliva and nasal secretions. The best way to decrease the chances of catching this and many other contagious respiratory infections is by washing hands often. Make sure your kids keep their hands soapy and under the water for about 20 seconds. (That’s about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.)
Other things you can do to help prevent infection include:
- Tell your kids to avoid touching their nose, mouth or eyes — particularly when they haven’t recently washed their hands.
- Wash surfaces frequently touched by a sick child, such as toys or doorknobs.
- Avoid sharing cups and utensils.
- Stay away from people you know are sick.
- Remind your kids to cough or sneeze into their elbow, not their hands. (Do this yourself, too!)
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 helps keep airway inflammation at bay. This can make all the difference if your child catches enterovirus D68. Also, if your child has asthma, make sure he or she always has “reliever” medicines handy.
Don’t jump to conclusions if your child catches a cold, but do keep an eye on it. Most likely it is a simple cold, but stay alert for signs of breathing difficulties. These include coughing frequently, breathing fast or heavy, having trouble talking or looking pale. These are signs you should get medical attention right away.
As of now, it appears most kids will recover completely. Epidemics of this type of virus typically peter out by winter. But don’t forget to take the precautions that I listed. Better safe than sorry.
Finally, don’t let this outbreak distract you from getting flu shots for your kids. The flu is also very common and can be very hard on them — again, especially those with asthma.