Explained: The symptoms of RSV and how to help stop its spread

As New Zealand enters the middle of winter, colds and flu are becoming widespread yet again.

The surge in viruses among children is overwhelming some hospitals and healthcare providers, especially as RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, spreads.

Counties Manukau and Lakes district health boards are currently under pressure trying to deal with the virus as many of the people coming through the doors are those with winter respiratory viruses.

Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (RNZCGP) medical director Dr Bryan Betty says many respiratory illnesses are going around in children right now, such as upper respiratory tract infections, colds, and flu-like symptoms due to RSV.

The symptoms of RSV include a runny nose, a decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing, a fever, and wheezing. But big symptoms parents can look for are drowsiness and if their child stops drinking - a "concerning sign" that a GP needs to check.

RSV is spread through close contact, so when an infected person sneezes or coughs, the virus travels through the air and can get into another person's eyes, nose, or mouth. It can also be spread by touching objects the virus has landed on and then touching your face.

"We know the hospital admissions and hospital presentations are a lot higher this year in certain parts of the country, especially the North Island," Dr Betty tells Newshub.

"What is thought to have happened is a lot of children's immunity may have dropped a little bit because they weren't exposed to it last year, therefore they might be getting slightly sicker than they otherwise would be."

This is part of the problem of the increased numbers this year, Dr Betty says, and the viruses appear to be hitting a lot harder than they normally would.

Although the viruses are around every year, they tend to disappear when the weather warms up over summer.

"We tend to go through surges of them, and certainly as we move through winter and it starts to get warmer again, people go outdoors again, we see these viruses drop off. So they're very seasonal in terms of how they operate," Dr Betty says.

Auckland City Hospital.
Auckland City Hospital. Photo credit: Getty Images

In an attempt to curb the number of respiratory infections, Rotorua Hospital is asking parents and caregivers to keep all children at home unless they're there as a patient.

Forty-eight children were seen in its emergency department on Monday and a "significant number" of these had RSV.

Rotorua Hospital has at least 13 children in hospital receiving treatment for RSV, including two babies in ICU.

The hospital's chief operating officer Alan Wilson says to prevent the virus from spreading, it's necessary to implement visitor guidelines within the emergency department, the children's unit, special baby care unit, and ICU.

"We need to try to limit overall visitor numbers and would strongly encourage children who are not patients to be kept at home," he says.

Under the new guidelines, both parents or primary caregivers of a child patient can be present during the day, but just one parent or caregiver can stay overnight. No other visitors, including siblings, are allowed.

"We are doing this to ensure that illness is not spread from our sick children in hospital onto their siblings, whānau and broader community," Wilson says.

Cases of RSV have "exploded" in the Lakes DHB area, with an average of seven patients a day being admitted. There are also between 20 and 30 likely RSV presentations to Rotorua's emergency department each day.

Any children in the community with RSV symptoms should be kept at home and not mix with other children in public places.

Rotorua Hospital's tip to help prevent the spread of RSV:

  • Avoid kissing your baby if you have cold symptoms
  • Don't let anyone smoke around your baby
  • Ask people to wash their hands before touching your baby
  • Keep sick children home from daycare, kindergarten, or school
  • Practice regular hand-washing
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow
  • Keep your distance from others when out in public.

Starship says it is also restricting the number of its visitors to help prevent the spread of infection. Visitors are now limited to parents and caregivers, and children under 14 years old, including brothers and sisters, are not allowed to visit children in Starship at this time.

Auckland DHB director of provider services Dr Mike Shepherd says due to the record number of children brought to the emergency department, including many presenting with winter respiratory illnesses, they've also had to postpone some planned admissions to hospital for surgeries and medical procedures to make room for the increase in acute patients.

"We'll be in contact if your child's appointment or surgery time is changed. Please come to your appointment as scheduled unless we're in contact," he says.

"We apologise to our patients and whānau and thank them for their understanding during this time."

Dr Shepherd they want the public's help and patience while there are increased patient numbers.

Their message to parents is: 

  • If it's a serious or life-threatening emergency, don't hesitate to call 111 or take your child to the emergency department
  • If you're unsure where you should go for care, call Healthline on 0800 611 116 for free advice from a nurse
  • If you have an appointment at one of ADHB's hospitals or clinics, attend the appointment as scheduled.

"Nothing is more important than getting help at the right time for your child, so if you need to come to Starship please do so," Dr Shepherd says.

"Our clinical team carefully assesses children who are waiting to ensure we see those with the most urgent needs first. We want whānau to be aware there may be a longer wait at the Starship children's emergency department so that they can plan for this."

To help keep on top of waiting times, Dr Shepherd says they're implementing escalation plans, increasing staffing, bringing in help from other parts of the hospital, and opening up extra inpatient beds.