Hundreds of children across the country are being treated for the respiratory illness Enterovirus D68, or EV-D68. Confirmed cases have spanned across the country since mid-August, though it’s likely more widespread than what has been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What’s different about EV-D68?

Enteroviruses are extremely common – with 10 million to 15 million infections in the U.S. each year – and the virus’ cold-like symptoms are generally so mild that most people don’t know they have it. Most common outbreaks occur during the summer and fall. Children are more likely to be infected, but anyone can contract the virus.

EV-D68 is different, however. It’s not a new virus (it was first identified in California in 1962), but it’s a lot less common than other enteroviruses in the U.S. And it’s caused a huge uptick in EV-D68-related emergency room visits across the country especially from children who suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems.

EV-D68 can cause mild to severe respiratory illness. Mild symptoms may include fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough, and body and muscle aches. Most of the children who have gotten seriously ill from EV-D68 infection have had asthma or a history of wheezing and the virus has caused wheezing and difficulty breathing. Symptoms generally last about a week, and no deaths have been reported from the outbreak.

The virus is hard to track, given that most enteroviruses cause the same symptoms and most hospitals don’t test for specific enterovirus types. That has changed with this most recent outbreak, with the CDC requesting samples of possible EV-D68 cases from hospitals across the U.S. The virus can only be diagnosed using specific lab tests cultures from specimens taken from a patient’s nose and throat. While many hospitals and some doctor’s offices can test for enterovirus, most can’t test for specific types of the virus. The CDC recommends only considering EV-D68 testing for patients with severe respiratory illness and in cases where the cause is unclear.

Prevention and treatment

Although there is no vaccine for enterovirus, there are steps you can take to help prevent it from spreading. “Prevention for EV-D68 follows the same protocol as general germ prevention,” explained Dr. Scott Spies of Novant Health Matthews Children’s Clinic . “Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Try to stay away from close contact with those who are ill, and keep children home when they’re sick to keep from infecting others. Frequently touched surfaces, especially toys and doorknobs, should be disinfected regularly.”

There is no specific treatment for respiratory illness cause by EV-D68. Mild pain and fever symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter medicine. People with asthma should take special care to take their medicines regularly and maintain control of their illness at this time. Some people with severe respiratory illness may need to be hospitalized.

“Many different viruses cause respiratory illness, so not everyone experiencing a respiratory problem at this time has EV-D68,” Spies added. “However, anyone with respiratory illness should contact their doctor anytime they experience difficulty breathing of if symptoms worsen.”