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Offered by: Richard W. Martin, M.D. – Brighton Pediatrics, P.C.

Cold weather means busy pediatricians’ offices and a lot of absences from school. We’re not sure why some viruses thrive and multiply better in cold weather, but it may be because people are spending more time crowded indoors, and because some viruses spread better when the air is dry.

Four important respiratory viruses to know about are parainfluenza, influenza (A and B), RSV, and rhinovirus. Parainfluenza (specifically type 1) is the most common cause of croup in young children and peaks in the fall. Croup presents with a distinctive cough that sounds like a seal barking, a hoarse voice, and sometimes a distinctive sound called stridor with breathing in.

RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which usually peaks in January and February, is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (not to be confused with bronchitis). RSV is so common that almost all children have had at least one infection with RSV by the time they reach two years of age. Many children just have a runny nose and cough but, mostly in children under two years of age, it can work its way down the respiratory tract into smaller airways called bronchioles, causing wheezing and breathing difficulty.

Influenza occurs from late fall to early spring, usually peaking in February. Common symptoms include fever, chills, headache, achy muscles, cough, stuffy nose and sore throat. Influenza may lead to secondary bacterial infections including ear infections and pneumonia.

Rhinovirus, the “common cold” virus, is present throughout the year but peaks in the cold weather months. Almost half of all upper respiratory infections are caused by rhinoviruses. In addition to the common cold, they can also sometimes cause bronchiolitis (second most common cause after RSV).

Good handwashing is the best way to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. The next time your physician or nurse practitioner tells you, “It’s just a virus,” you can ask them, “Do you mean just a rhinovirus?”

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