Thanks to wall-to-wall news coverage this week, you might be in full-blown Ebola panic right now—stocking up on bottled water and bleach in case an epidemic breaks out nationwide. But the fact is, the odds of an epidemic, or even the typical American coming down with Ebola, are pretty remote, experts say.
Yet while you've been distracted by the events in West Africa and now Dallas, we're betting you've paid scant attention to another potentially deadly virus, one you're way more likely to pick up: enterovirus. To date, it's hospitalized more than 500 people and has been associated with four deaths (compared to zero deaths from Ebola and only one confirmed U.S. case so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control).
Even though you may never have heard of it, enterovirus is very common. The CDC estimates that 10 to 15 million people are infected each year, usually with no complications. Most healthy adults who come down with it will feel as if they have a cold, showing symptoms such as a slight fever, cough, and runny nose. It's nothing a little rest, chicken soup and TLC can't take care of, says Karen Mason of the CDC's division of viral diseases.
The bad news: This year's strain, dubbed EV-D68, is more potent than in years past. And that's led enterovirus to play out differently among people with weakened immune systems and children with asthma, going from a cold-like illness to a raging respiratory infection that requires immediate medical attention. "In general, infants, children, and teenagers are most likely to be infected with enteroviruses and become sick," Mason says. That's because they do not yet have immunity from previous exposure to different strains of the virus, she adds.
This year's enterovirus has also triggered some alarming secondary health conditions. A handful of children in Colorado, Boston and Michigan have displayed "polio-like" partial paralysis, and these cases have been associated with the virus. And again, it's been implicated in four deaths, most recently a 10-year-old girl in Rhode Island. But Mason cautions that even though all four tested positive for EV-D68, it doesn't necessarily mean the virus caused or even had anything to do with their deaths. "The role that EV-D68 infection played in these deaths is unclear at this time; state and local health departments are continuing to investigate," says Mason.
Adults in good health who contract enterovirus probably won't be hit hard. But if you do come down with what appears to be a typical cold, CDC officials advise keeping an eye out for signs that could indicate something serious. If you develop a high fever that doesn't subside after a few days, notice a mysterious skin rash, or experience difficulty breathing, get medical care immediately. To reduce your risk of contracting enterovirus in the first place, take the usual precautions: Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, disinfect common surfaces, and avoid contact with people who are sneezing, sniffling, and showing other cold- or flu-like symptoms.