Although the news coverage has  receded a bit,  many  articles still describe the recent enterovirus 68 outbreak as a “mystery virus.”   While there have been hundreds of children affected with the illness and spread to additional states being reported, it is not really a new virus or a particularly mysterious one.  While enterovirus is not a household health term, it is a fairly large group of viruses and part of a larger family of common ones.  There are a few things about this particular agent that are notable.  One  is that serotype 68 is not a common type for this time of year. Two,  that the outbreak has developed unusually rapidly  (though it does coincide with the start of school, so not so remarkable) and  this agent  has currently been reported in twelve states.  Most significantly is that while it usually presents with  the common symptoms of many other respiratory viruses–runny nose, sneezing, cough–it does often take on a complicated course in many children with asthma.  It is the severe cough and wheezing with the resulting breathing difficulty that is responsible for the large number of children who have had to be hospitalized and in some cases be given  respiratory assistance.

As with most respiratory viral illnesses, there is no specific treatment.   The approach parents should take if children come down with these symptoms is essentially what is the usual for respiratory viral infection:  rest, adequate fluids, appropriate fever control and, generally, avoidance of OTC cold/cough medications.    A doctor’s office visit is not necessary for every cold-like illness. The most important component of care is really good observation for  indicators  that a more severe infection is developing: watching for high fever, severe cough, wheezing or other breathing difficulty, and poor fluid intake or keeping down liquids.  And we always add, anything else that suggests a worsening, really sick-appearing child.  There should be prompt notification of a physician to determine if a timely office visit (or after hours, an appropriate urgent-care facility evaluation) is warranted.

It is also important to recognize that like most viruses, this one is transmitted from person-to-person. This means that  frequent, really careful hand washing with soap,  covering the face when coughing or sneezing, and avoidance of shared cups or eating utensils of sick children, is very important.   Such measures can help prevent infection or limit its spread to fewer individuals.  And, in case you are wondering, there is no vaccine for this or similar respiratory viruses.

As of this posting,  there have not been any cases in the Houston area or elsewhere in Texas.  Should this change, it will certainly be prominent in the City’s media outlets.  Until then, parents should treat respiratory viruses as they generally have, keeping in mind that other viruses can sometimes cause more complicated illnesses, and the same observation as is above is always appropriate.