The Facts About Respiratory Syncytial Virus

What is RSV and how do you get it?

“Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common, highly-contagious virus that affects people of all ages, but is most severe in young children and older adults. Most children have one RSV infection by the time they’re 2 years of age,” says Andi Shane, MD, System Medical Director, Infectious Diseases at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “The virus spreads easily by contact with droplets from sneezing or coughing, droplets on unwashed hands, counter tops, crib rails and toys.”

RSV infections typically occur from late fall through early spring, spreading rapidly through childcare centers and schools and any place where people have close contact with each other. In otherwise healthy children, RSV typically results in coughing and a runny nose, with a fever that resolves in about one week.

What does RSV mean for babies and children with chronic illnesses?

Babies can frequently get a run-of-the-mill get cold. But if your infant’s runny nose and cough turn into more serious breathing trouble, the problem could be RSV, which is potentially life threatening for little lungs.

In children who were born prematurely and in those with other medical conditions such as lung or heart conditions, an RSV infection can be more severe.

What are RSV symptoms?

In otherwise healthy children, RSV symptoms may look like a common cold and include:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Fever

Symptoms of an RSV infection usually last about a week, but in some cases can last longer. Dr Shane says, “If your child’s symptoms are mild, supportive care such as fluids and fever controlling medications may be all that is needed. Cough and cold medicines do not help to relieve symptoms in young children and should be avoided. Giving a fever controlling medication that does not contain aspirin may be helpful.”

When should I call the doctor?

Seek medical care if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or fast breathing with tugging of the chest muscles
  • Gray or blue-tinged skin color (this typically shows up on the lips and fingernails)
  • Wheezing—a high-pitched noise usually heard when a child exhales
  • Apnea (stopping breathing)
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Refusing to drink liquids or breastfeed
  • Decreased number of wet diapers
  • Your healthcare professional may take a swab of your baby’s nasal fluids to confirm if the problem is RSV.

Some other conditions associated with RSV infections include:

  • Ear infection
  • Asthma—there may be a link between severe RSV in children and the chance of developing asthma later in life

How is RSV treated?

“Children who may have difficulty breathing and staying hydrated are usually hospitalized so they can get oxygen treatment, fluids and suctioning of the upper airways,” says Dr. Shane. “For mild symptoms, make your child as comfortable as possible, and provide plenty of fluids.”

Some other tips include:

  • If your child is too young to blow his nose, use a nasal aspirator or bulb syringe to remove sticky nasal fluids.
  • Treat fever with acetaminophen—never aspirin.
  • If your child has difficulty breathing or eating, contact a healthcare professional immediately.

Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine to prevent RSV, and antibiotics are not effective in treating it since RSV is a virus.

What can you do to prevent RSV?

Like the common cold, the most effective way to avoid infection is to encourage good hand-hygiene in children and adults. Some other ways to prevent your child from getting sick:

  • Avoid others with cold-like symptoms or a fever.
  • Insist that everyone who comes close to your child practices good hand hygiene. RSV is easily spread from person to person by contact.
  • Don’t smoke anywhere near your baby. Exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of severe RSV illness.

We can all do our part to protect babies and young children from RSV infections. And knowing the symptoms of a more severe RSV infection can be lifesaving.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.
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