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High-Profile Virus May be Worrisome for Kids with Asthma, but Not Unlike Other Childhood Illnesses

By Sam Smith, MD, Surgeon in Chief, Arkansas Children's Hospital

LITTLE ROCK, AR. (Oct. 7, 2014) – If you've spent any time in front of a TV or on social media lately, you couldn't miss the reports about enterovirus 68. Everyone is talking about it, and some outlets are referring to it as a "mystery illness."

The good news is that enteroviruses are not a mystery to pediatricians and children's hospitals. They are very common viruses, and there are more than 100 types of them. Every fall we expect that we'll see an influx of enterovirus infections because when children go back to classes and start after-school activities, they share germs more easily.

Enterovirus 68 has tended to be less common than other infections, but this season, it's gained steam. I guess you could say that part is a "mystery," because we never truly know why a specific virus suddenly spreads faster.

We do know, however, that this virus is particularly troublesome for kids with a previous history of breathing problems, like allergies and asthma. We want to do our best to protect those kids from enterovirus 68 because it's hard on their little bodies. There's not a specific treatment for this virus and no anti-viral medications are available to help us knock it out, so basic prevention methods are really our best strategy right now.

What does that mean? The same thing we physicians and nurses tell you during cold and flu season:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. (Especially after changing diapers or wiping little noses.) There's some evidence that physical hand-washing is more effective against this virus than using hand sanitizer gels and sprays.
  • Now keep those hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth. (We do know this can seem nearly impossible with kiddos, but talk to them about why it's important. Remind them they can help keep themselves healthy!)
  • Avoid kissing, hugging and sharing cups or utensils with people who are sick.
  • Wash surfaces that are frequently touched, including toys and doorknobs, especially if someone in your home or classroom has been ill.
  • Cough and sneeze into the sleeve on your elbow, rather than your bare hand or in the air. Wash up immediately!

Many of the people who come down with enterovirus 68 are going to have mild symptoms. They're going to feel crummy, probably like they have a bad cold.

If a child is diagnosed with enterovirus 68, they'll receive care to target their symptoms since there isn't a specific treatment for the virus. A child with asthma will need to be on their action plan, and Mom and Dad should communicate their heightened risk to their teachers or a friend's parent if they're at sleepovers.

We know that babies and young children may be more likely to come down with enterovirus 68 because their immune systems aren't as developed and they won't have had previous exposure to it.

If your child is sick, watch them closely, but don't be too alarmed. As with any illness, your concern should be with their breathing and general disposition.

What we don't want is a child who is gasping for air or wheezing. If your child's illness progresses past a basic wet cough and they seem to have trouble breathing, definitely call your pediatrician or if symptoms warrant, head for the emergency room.

While there is no vaccine for enterovirus 68, there is one for influenza. Make sure your child gets this vaccine either at school or at his or her pediatrician's office this fall. We want to protect kids against every respiratory illness we can!

As of this writing, Arkansas Children's Hospital had some confirmed cases of enterovirus, but we're waiting on the CDC to tell us whether the strain is the same one that's been popping up across the country. There will likely be cases into the fall, but remember that the majority of them may never be diagnosed and will be mild in form.

If you want more info and up-to-date stats on tracking enterovirus 68, you can visit the CDC at

Stay healthy and go wash those hands!

Another tip: The MyACH iPhone app available from the Apple iTunes store can help you find lots of helpful information about preventing all kinds of injuries and illnesses. Download it free today.

Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids' medical concerns. If you have a topic you'd like him to consider addressing, email

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