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What you should know about the respiratory illness spreading among children

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By Jacque Wilson

(CNN - Sept. 8, 2014) -- Hundreds of children across the United States have been hospitalized with a serious respiratory illness. Scientists say they believe the bug to blame is Enterovirus D68, also known as EV-D68.

Enteroviruses are common, especially in September, but this particular type is not. There have been fewer than 100 cases recorded since it was identified in the 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here's what you need to know as a parent:

What are the symptoms?

The virus usually starts like the common cold; symptoms include sneezing, a runny nose and a cough. This is all that happens for most people who catch an enterovirus.

But some patients will get a severe cough, have difficulty breathing and/or develop a rash. EV-D68 is sometimes also accompanied by a fever or wheezing.

So when should you begin worrying?

Unfortunately in the beginning it's difficult -- if not impossible -- to tell the difference between a regular cold and this type of virus. But there are symptoms you should be on the lookout for if your child becomes sick.

Go to the doctor if he or she develops a fever or a rash, or if your child has difficulty breathing. Children with asthma or a history of breathing problems are particularly susceptible for severe symptoms.

Where is the virus spreading?

As of Monday, 10 states had reached out to the CDC for help in identifying clusters of enterovirus illnesses: Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

But EV-D68 is often hard to distinguish from its relatives so the virus could be in other states as well.

Why are kids being hospitalized?

Anyone can get infected with enteroviruses, according to the CDC, but infants, children and teens are more likely to become sick because they have not yet built up immunity from previous exposures to the viruses.

How do I protect my children?

The respiratory illness spreads through close contact, just like the common cold. You can also be infected by touching objects or surfaces that have the virus on them, then touching your face.

There's not a great deal you can do, health officials say, beyond taking common-sense steps to reduce the risk.

Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds -- particularly after going to the bathroom and changing diapers.

Clean and disinfect surfaces that are regularly touched by different people, such as toys and doorknobs.

Avoid shaking hands, kissing, hugging and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick. And stay home if you feel unwell.

In Indiana:

The State Health Department is working with local health departments and hospitals to conduct surveillance for additional cases of enterovirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) is assisting the State with testing for the EV-D68 strain.

“When evaluating patients with significant respiratory illness, it’s important to test for enterovirus because it helps healthcare providers rule out other treatable illnesses, such as influenza or bacterial pneumonia, and to know what viruses are circulating,” said State Epidemiologist Pam Pontones. “Practices such as washing your hands, covering your cough and staying home when you’re sick are more important than ever to protect yourself and others.”

CNN's Jethro Mullen and Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.