Published: Nov 20, 2012 2:51 PM EST

LEE COUNTY, Fla.- The Lee County Health Department and Lee Memorial Health System are urging residents and visitors to protect themselves and children against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, following a recent surge in local cases requiring hospitalization.

“A person can be contagious before symptoms appear,” said Director of the Lee County Health Department Dr. Judith Hartner, MD. “The best defense is hand washing, hand washing and more hand washing.”

RSV is a common yet potentially severe respiratory illness. Young children and infants are at greatest risk for a severe case of the virus.

"We are seeing a steady stream of admissions of children with RSV," says Stephanie Stovall, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. "While most cases of RSV are mild and do not require hospitalization, premature infants, children with heart or lung conditions, or weak immune systems are at the highest risk. Adults are also at risk, particularly those who are immunocompromised.”

Florida’s RSV season is unique, lasting from August through March in some regions of the state, much longer than the rest of the country.

RSV symptoms can be mild cold-like symptoms in adults and older children, while in high risk children younger than two and the elderly, RSV can cause serious illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

“Studies have shown RSV virus can remain alive and contagious on hands for 30 minutes or more,” said Hartner. “There is no better prevention than covering coughs and sneezes then thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water or by using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.”

Proper hand washing with soap and water includes about 20 seconds or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice plus rinsing. Proper hand washing with hand sanitizer includes using a generous palm-filling amount and rubbing both sides of the hands and in between fingers until it evaporates.

Other good hygiene tips to prevent the spread of RSV include not sharing cups and eating utensils with others, cleaning contaminated surfaces and keeping sick people home.

“If you or your child has any symptoms of RSV, you should contact your primary care physician or pediatrician," advised Stovall.

For more information visit: http://www.doh.state.fl.us/Disease_ctrl/epi/RSV/rsv.htm or: http://www.cdc.gov/rsv/clinical/index.html or call (239) 332-9580.