Respiratory illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are very common in the winter months, and for most children provide a chance for their immune systems to mature and develop the defences needed. But with lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus keeping people apart for much of the winter, young children haven’t had the chance to build this immunity. Now, the NHS is preparing for a rise in children needing treatment and health chiefs have issued a warning.
While the lockdowns might have succeeded in control infection levels of COVID-19, they have also led to lower levels of illnesses such as RSV.
Public Health England said: “Respiratory infections in young children have begun to rise out of season, following low infection levels in response to COVID-19 restrictions and good infection control measures that have been in place.”
PHE data has shown that cases of respiratory illnesses are already on the rise, and health chiefs said parents should be aware of the signs.
RSV is a very common virus and almost all children are infected with it by the time they are two years old.
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In older children and adults, RSV may cause a cough or cold.
However, children under two – especially those considered at-risk, such as those born prematurely or with a heart condition – can suffer more serious consequences from these common infections.
A potential complication is bronchiolitis, an inflammatory infection of the lower airways – which can make it hard to breathe.
Most cases of bronchiolitis are not serious and clear up within a few weeks, but parents should be aware of what to look out for.
NHS England began planning for the potential rise in paediatric respiratory infections in April 2021.
Paediatric units have brought forward their usual winter planning, escalation and emergency processes which will support an increased capacity in terms of beds, workforce and ward supplies.
Health Minister Lord Bethell said: “I remember the long nights in hospital when my eight-week-old daughter fought off RSV.
“The image of her tiny body plugged into those machines and gasping for air will not leave me. I would not wish those moments for anyone.”
He added: ” urge all parents and carers to be alert to the signs of RSV, particularly amongst young children. It’s a nasty bug, so watch out for it.”
Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at PHE, said: “This winter, we expect levels of common seasonal illnesses such as cold and flu to increase as people mix more and given that fewer people will have built up natural immunity during the pandemic.
“Children under two are at a particular risk of severe infections from common seasonal illnesses.
“If a child under two is suffering from a cold, keep a close eye on their symptoms and make sure to contact your doctor if they get a high temperature, become breathless or have difficulty feeding.
“It’s important that we carry on with good hygiene habits that we’ve become used to during the pandemic, in order to protect ourselves and those around us.
“This means washing your hands regularly, using a tissue to catch coughs or sneezes and washing your hands afterwards, and staying away from others if you feel unwell.”