Boston Children’s Hospital has admitted 90 patients with respiratory illness over the last eight days, triple the number admitted during the same period last year, hospital officials said.
Samples are being tested for enterovirus D68, the unusual virus that has been spreading across the country since August.
“We are not overwhelmed, but we are loaded,” said Dr. Michael Agus, director of the medicine intensive care unit at Children’s.
The sudden influx of patients with respiratory illnesses “is beyond anything most of us have ever seen,” he said, “but it’s identical to everything we’re seeing in every city across the country.”
Enterovirus D68 is not new, but before this year it was rarely seen. Most cases are mild, but it can trigger asthma symptoms in some children.
There are no confirmed cases at Boston Children’s or anywhere in Massachusetts, but the increase in respiratory illness among children suggests that enterovirus D68 has arrived here.
On Thursday, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield also reported an upsurge in respiratory illnesses among young children over the past week to 10 days.
Boston Medical Center said Friday that it, too, had seen an increase in children with respiratory illness in its pediatric emergency department, pediatric intensive care unit, and inpatient services, but no confirmed case of enterovirus D68.
Between mid-August and Friday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that 160 people from 22 states had suffered respiratory illness caused by enterovirus D68. Most were children and teenagers.
Most people have mild symptoms resembling a cold, with runny nose, sneezing, and cough.
But in some children, the infection quickly brings on wheezing and difficulty breathing.
“With the right medications, they generally turn the corner within 24, maybe 48 hours,” Agus said.
Agus said that 15 percent to 20 percent of the children who came to the Boston Children’s emergency room with breathing problems needed to be hospitalized, typically for two or three days.
Twelve went to the intensive care unit and two dozen to intermediate care.
Ten patients had to be put on ventilators to help them breath, including three who required a tube down their throats.
Most of the children were age 2 to 10 and had a history of asthma or breathing problems.
But “we were seeing a couple of patients who had never had wheezing before and yet still became severely ill,” Agus said.
The hospital is nearing but has not exceeded its usual capacity and has plans in place to make room for additional patients if that should prove necessary.
Agus urged parents to vaccinate their children against the flu.
It will not protect against enterovirus, but children who get enterovirus in September are at risk of becoming seriously ill during flu season.
“We don’t have a specific therapy for this virus,” he added. “The only reason to seek medical care is if your child is ill and in need of respiratory support.”