An enterovirus outbreak happened in 2014—should you be worried if it happens again?

By Maggie O'Neill and Amelia Harnish
October 25, 2019

Back in 2014, an "unidentified virus" sickened kids across the country—over 1,000 in more than 10 states.

According to an ABC News report from that time, symptoms first started out like any average cold—runny nose, sneezing, coughing—but soon turned into serious respiratory illnesses with wheezing and trouble breathing. Many children were hospitalized, and some were even sent to the intensive care unit (ICU) in hospitals and sedated to fully recover. 

Eventually, that virus became known as enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), a type of enterovirus, and just one of more than 100 other enteroviruses. It sounds like scary stuff, but what exactly are enteroviruses—and should you be worried for when and if the next outbreak strikes? Health spoke to an infectious disease expert to find out.

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What is enterovirus?

First of all, enterovirus isn't just one specific virus. There are many types of enteroviruses—more than 100—one of the most well-known being polio (which, by the way, has been all but eradicated in the US). 

Other than polio, most enteroviruses are known as non-polio enteroviruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and those enteroviruses cause 10 to 15 million infections in the US each year, especially during the summer and fall months. "Enterovirus loves the fall," Frank Esper, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic tells Health. "When the leaves are changing and the kids are in school, that's when enterovirus season is."

But most enteroviruses aren't dangerous (they're actually related to the rhinovirus, which is the common cold). People with an enterovirus may not even feel symptoms, while some develop mild cold symptoms that can go away on their own. Those illnesses are more common in infants, children, and teenagers, since they haven't built up an immunity to enteroviruses yet, but adults can also become infected. Symptoms of a mild non-polio enterovirus illness include fever, runny nose, skin rash, mouth blisters, and body and muscle aches. 

In some cases, enteroviruses can also lead to infections—hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) being one of the most common among infants and children under five years old, which causes blistering on the fingers, mouth, and feet. But, according to Dr. Esper, HFMD is "a very benign infection—usually [it's] what happens when small children get enterovirus for the first time."

Another non-polio enterovirus is enterovirus D68 (EV-D68)—the virus that caused the enterovirus outbreak in 2014. According to the CDC, EV-D68 can cause mild to severe respiratory illness. Mild symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and muscle and body aches, while severe symptoms include wheezing and difficulty breathing. 

Other serious (but rare) enterovirus infections include viral conjunctivitis (eye infection), viral meningitis (infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain), and viral encephalitis (infection of the brain), among others, per the CDC. Those are some of the most dangerous complications, says Dr. Esper. "There are certain types [of enterovirus] where it can cause really bad meningitis and encephalitis—and people die from that.” Still, it's important to remember that these enterovirus infections are extremely rare. 

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How is enterovirus treated?

Unfortunately, there's no treatment for enteroviruses on their own, says Dr. Esper. "Generally, you wait for the patient’s immune system to kick out the virus," he adds. But, if you do get enterovirus, you can take some steps to help yourself heal by managing symptoms.

Most of the time, this includes staying hydrated, getting enough rest, and taking over-the-counter cold medicine as needed. But, according to the CDC, some more severe cases may require hospitalization. 

You can also take steps to prevent you or someone you know from getting enteroviruses—they're spread through close contact with an infected person or the virus itself. That means you can majorly reduce your risk of picking it up with hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces that are touched by lots of different people, like doorknobs.

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