How Rapid Tests are Enabling Early Detection of RSV Cases—Helping Stem Historic Surge in Child Hospitalizations

Updated on March 17, 2023
graphic of the letters: rsv with a stethoscope in background

A highly contagious viral disease amongst children, RSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus, is often mistaken for the common cold, and this past year more than others, that’s a big problem. That’s because RSV can be more serious than the common cold, causing lung infections that require hospitalization and, in some cases, assisted breathing.

The 2022-2023 sick season has taken an especially hard toll on young children. As part of what is now being referred to as a tripledemic— coming in alongside Covid-19 and the flu— RSV cases in children have risen to unprecedented levels, overwhelming hospitals throughout the United States There are currently no approved RSV vaccines on the U.S. market and few viable treatments.

In a year where most hospitals have exceeded their capacity to handle the most severe cases of RSV, early detection could stem the tide. 

Early treatment can prevent severe illness and that means bucking tradition

While the actual cause of the surge in this year’s RSV cases remains a mystery, scientists have pointed to an “immunity gap” caused by quarantine, masking, homeschooling, and other pandemic-era practices.

While these protective efforts helped to decrease the spread of Covid-19 over the past three years, they also reduced exposure to other common viruses to which children need to build immunity. In turn, this means that more children are being exposed to RSV this year for the first time, catching the virus, and then spreading it to their friends and family. 

Getting early treatment for RSV is a top priority in reducing the risk of severe illness, and that requires early detection. Early symptoms of RSV can near-mimic the common cold, but if a child has a fever, is wheezing, breathing faster than normal, or having difficulty swallowing, drinking or eating, it’s important to see their pediatrician or physician as soon as possible within the first few days after symptoms appear. 

RSV diagnostic tests can help when they’re used correctly and timely

RSV is detected through rapid diagnostic tests performed in a physician’s office and consisting of a quick nasal swab that can provide answers in less than an hour. But if the test is conducted incorrectly— too little sample is taken, not enough time is allowed for processing, etc.— it can produce a false positive, which could lead to unnecessary treatment or a false negative, which could result in treatment being rendered too late or not at all.

Critically, these tests also rely on detectable levels of virus being present in the nose. While these tests are highly accurate at diagnosing RSV in children, they can’t detect what isn’t there. Going to the doctor as early as possible when symptoms appear facilitates the most accurate test results possible. 

When it comes to protecting and treating young children, every minute counts. While scientists continue to work hard to reach approval on vaccines and treatments for RSV, the minutes continue to add up. Right now, reliable RSV rapid diagnostic tests are the first line of defense; they can help us to detect and manage RSV sooner, potentially reducing severe illness and hospitalization, taking back minutes until vaccines and treatments arrive. 

Image by 123RF

Shawn Gaskell
Shawn Gaskell

Shawn Gaskell is the Head of Product Management of Diagnostic Manufacturing Materials atMilliporeSigma, a developer of important raw materials for lateral flow assays. Shawn builds crucial partnerships with IVD and Medical Device manufacturers for improved service levels and overall customer satisfaction.