Winter viruses and prevention: What you need to know

"How can I protect my child from the RSV virus? Can I get vaccinated against the winter vomiting virus or norovirus, and how can you tell the difference between chickenpox, impetigo and hand, foot and mouth disease? Infectious disease specialist Maria Marklund answers common questions that often cause concern in the winter months

Maria Marklund, smittskyddsläkare inom Region Västerbotten, tipsar om vad som är viktigt att tänka på om man vill hålla sig frisk till jul.

Maria Marklund, smittskyddsläkare inom Region Västerbotten, tipsar om vad som är viktigt att tänka på om man vill hålla sig frisk till jul.

Foto: TT

Västerbotten2023-12-13 14:45

When children are sick, it's not surprising that parents are worried. The winter months are also a peak season for infections that most people do their best to avoid - such as the RSV virus, which can be life-threatening for the very young, and winter vomiting (or norovirus), which can confine a whole family to bed.

But there are several ways to protect your child - and yourself - from these diseases. Both vaccines and good hand hygiene can provide protection, according to Maria Marklund, an infectious disease specialist with Region Västerbotten.

– In times when the RSV virus is spreading, you should avoid having particularly vulnerable people, such as young infants, spend long periods in indoor environments with many people. The RSV virus spreads when droplets from the respiratory tract of an infected person come into contact with the mucous membranes of another person. This can happen when droplets land directly on a mucous membrane or when a person touches a surface where droplets have landed with their hands and then touches their own eyes or nose. Good hand hygiene is therefore essential to prevent transmission, says Marklund.

– In 2023, two new vaccines against the RSV virus have been approved, so you can also be vaccinated against it. However, I'm not sure they are available yet in Västerbotten.

Cases of RSV have been reported in different regions of the country, but an epidemic has not yet started. Last week, six cases of RSV were reported in Västerbotten. Three of them were children under the age of five.

The RSV virus affects older people and younger children most severely, and the new vaccines are approved for people over 75 years of age and for people over 60 years of age in at-risk groups. One of the vaccines is also approved for pregnant women between 24 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. The vaccines are approved, but how they should be used is still being studied.

– We will hear more about vaccines against the RSV virus in the coming years, says Marklund.

The weeks around Christmas usually mark the start of the infamous winter vomiting virus, but it has not yet reached this region or spread significantly across the country, according to Marklund. However, she does have some preventative tips on how to avoid contracting winter vomiting before Christmas.

– You should practice good hand and cooking hygiene. This means having clean hands by washing them with soap and water, not just using hand sanitizer. And you should not cook for others if you are sick, Marklund says.

– Unfortunately, it only takes a small amount of the virus to get sick. Wash your hands and then keep your fingers crossed!

A vaccine against winter vomiting has been researched for many years, but it has proved difficult to develop and is not likely to be available in the near future.

However, vaccines are available for many other diseases.

– We have recently had an outbreak of covid-19 in the area. In the last three weeks, we have seen a decrease in incidence, which is good news. The influenza epidemic started in Sweden last week, and we also have cases of influenza in the county, but at a low level. Last week we had eleven cases, the week before five cases and the week before that one case. So there is an increase in Västerbotten, but it's still at a low level.

Marklund has some general advice for staying healthy through Christmas.

– I think that those groups of people who are advised to get influenza and covid-19 vaccines should definitely get them. And now you have the opportunity to get vaccinated even if you are not in a recommended group. To help reduce the spread of infection, you can help by avoiding contact with others when you are sick. To protect yourself, make sure you do not come into contact with people you know are sick. Good hand hygiene protects you and others. That's basically what you can do.

Some areas of the country are currently experiencing a chickenpox outbreak, and it is not always easy to distinguish between the spots, as chickenpox, impetigo, and hand, foot, and mouth disease can look similar.

The easiest way to tell the spots apart may be to look at where they break out on the body.

Once a person is infected with chickenpox, it can take up to 20 days for symptoms to appear. At first, there is usually fever, tiredness, and headache, and a day or two later the spots, which can spread all over the body and then become fluid-filled blisters, usually appear.