As the enterovirus D68 overwhelms hospitals in the Midwest, many parents are wondering how they can protect their kids. Stories and photos in recent days of children in intensive care units hooked up to oxygen and IV drips as a result of the illness are enough to scare even the calmest mom or dad.
"The number of cases in the states that are affected is massive," Dr. Gail Shust, assistant professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told CBS News. "We just have to see what happens to other states and how it spreads. The burden on the health care system of states where it's affected has been huge."
The current outbreak involves one of 100 different types of enteroviruses, a virus related to the common cold. Shust said many children and adults who become sick with the virus may not know they have it because the virus sometimes presents with mild symptoms. She said children who have ended up in emergency rooms most likely have some type of underlying respiratory problem, such as asthma.
Though enterovirus D68 most commonly causes respiratory illness, other symptoms may emerge including fever, rash, gastrointestinal distress and in rare cases neurologic illness, such as aseptic meningitis and encephalitis.
"It is a rare strain of a very common virus," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips told "CBS This Morning." "The most important thing to pick up on is any difficulty breathing. Wheezing or a cough that just won't stop, those are the warning signs and parents should have a low threshold for heading to the hospital with that."
As with every other virus, one can reduce their risk for contracting enterovirus D68 through frequent hand-washing. The virus is relatively hardy and can live on surfaces for some time, so it's important to use hand sanitizer and frequently disinfect communal surfaces, such as tabletops and doorknobs, to avoid germs from spreading since the incubation period can be as long as a week.
If children show signs of respiratory illness, Shust says it's important to seek out medical care. There is no specific treatment for enterovirus D68, and no vaccine, but doctors can provide children who are admitted to the hospital with supportive care. Hospital support may include oxygen, IV fluids and also drugs to help alleviate the respiratory symptoms, such as Albuterol, which is commonly given for asthma, and steroids to reduce inflammation in the lungs.
But Shust also urged parents not to worry too much since kids -- especially in school settings -- pick up all sorts of germs. "A healthy, normal school-age kid can get as many 7 to 10 viruses a year and that's pretty normal," she said.
The outbreak of the virus has sickened more than 1,000 children across 10 states in the Midwest. In mid-August, health officials in Missouri and Illinois first reported an uptick in hospitalizations for severe respiratory illness, which included some children admitted to pediatric intensive care units.
The CDC says nasal and throat cultures of patients from two facilities were sent to the Picornavirus Laboratory to be sequenced. The testing confirmed a number of cases. Enterovirus D68 was found to be the underlying cause of symptoms in 19 out of 22 specimens from the Kansas City hospital and 11 out of 14 specimens in Chicago. The CDC says admission for the virus at both facilities continues to rise and the agency is investigating emerging outbreaks of the virus in other jurisdictions.
According to the CDC, the first case of ernterovirus D68 occurred in California in 1962.