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What You Need to Know About Enterovirus D68

enterovirus.jpgIt's been all over the news: a virus that is making hundreds of children very sick, sending them to hospitals with severe coughing and trouble breathing. So far, the cases have been in the midwest and Georgia--but that could change any day.

So here's what you need to know.

The virus that is sickening all these people, mostly children, is called Enterovirus D68. Enteroviruses are incredibly common--every year they cause about 10-15 million infections. They can cause colds along with fever, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and rashes. The virus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease is an enterovirus. This is the season for them: summer and fall are when we see the most.

This particular kind of enterovirus is less common than others, but it's been around before. For some reason, it can cause a particularly bad respiratory illness--meaning it can cause severe cold symptoms, a bad cough, and even trouble breathing. For people who already have lung problems, such as children with asthma, or people with weaker immune systems, such as newborns, this virus can be dangerous.

The virus spreads the way most viruses do: From person to person, in "bodily fluids" such as saliva, snots, and poop, through coughs, sneezes, handshakes, sharing cups and surfaces, changing diapers, and all sorts of other common actions and interactions.

It's not entirely clear why this virus affects children more than adults. It may simply be that children just have had less exposure to enteroviruses generally, and so haven't had time to build up as strong an immune response as adults. (It's possible that when adults get it they aren't as sick, so we don't even know they have it.) It's also likely that we are seeing more of it in kids because kids are especially good at spreading germs. They hang out together a lot, wipe their noses with the backs of their hands, don't always wash their hands, share cups and utensils and objects like toys more than adults do.

There is no medication to fight Enterovirus D68. The care for it is what we call "supportive," meaning we do things to help with symptoms, like oxygen if they have trouble breathing, fluids if they are dehydrated, medication for fever. There's no vaccine, either. Which means that prevention, and being aware of symptoms and getting medical attention, are key.

So here's what you should do:

- Wash your hands often. Use plain old soap and water, and wash for at least 20 seconds. Carry hand sanitizer when you are out and about and away from sinks.

- Don't share cups or utensils, and wipe down toys and shared surfaces like doorknobs frequently.

- Keep a reasonable distance from sick people. Save the hugging and kissing for when they are better. Don't let sick people hold or care for your baby, to the extent that's possible. And if you or family members are feeling sick, stay home. It's better for everyone.

- Teach your children to cover coughs and sneezes with the inside of the elbow or a tissue, not the hand.

- If your child has asthma or any other lung disease, make sure he is taking all medication as prescribed, especially any "controller" medications used to prevent symptoms. Over the summer, lots of families get a bit lax with those, feeling like they aren't necessary--but at this time of year, it's time to get back into taking them regularly. If you need refills, call your doctor.

- If someone in your family starts with the sniffles and a cough, don't panic. Chances are it's just the common cold, and it's no big deal. But keep a close eye, and if the cough gets worse, the person looks weak, seems very sick, or is having any trouble breathing at all, call your doctor or go to your local emergency room. (Ask your doctor which emergency room is best for your child, as some have more experience with and equipment for children than others.)

These are things that we tell people about preventing and recognizing the flu, too, so it's good advice to put into place now anyway. (And get your flu shot!)

For more information about Enterovirus D68 and the recent outbreak, visit the page about it on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, or read the information on the health information website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Photo: Children's Hospital Colorado is seeing high numbers of respiratory illnesses.9-year-old patient Jayden Broadway of Denver is being treated at the hospital on Monday, September 8, 2014 for the enterovirus 68. A third of the visits to the hospital's emergency department have been for respiratory illnesses. (Cyrus McCrimmon/Getty Images)

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