RSV—It’s Not Just a Cold

Posted on 6 Oct 2017

This content has been clinically reviewed by Andi Shane, MD.

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, a potentially life-threatening condition.

But wait. What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that infects the lungs of most children at least once by the time they’re two years old. In otherwise healthy children, the virus typically only causes cold-like symptoms, so there is little cause for alarm.

The impact of RSV can be much greater in premature infants, however, also in babies under 6 months of age or children with chronic heart or lung problems.

For these children, RSV can spread to the lower respiratory tract, inflaming the small airway passages entering the lungs and causing bronchiolitis or pneumonia. It’s important for parents to recognize the more severe symptoms of RSV and get medical help—fast.

What is RSV?

RSV is a highly-contagious respiratory virus that affects people of all ages. The virus spreads easily by sneeze or cough, unwashed hands, and can survive on surfaces such as countertops, crib rails and toys.

RSV infections typically occur from late fall through early spring, spreading rapidly through childcare centers, schools and anyplace where large crowds gather.

There are two different strains of RSV that may result in different illness severity. Some children may experience a second RSV infection during the same season, which may be from a different RSV strain, although the second infection is usually more mild. Since the symptoms of RSV can be similar to other viruses that cause respiratory symptoms, a child may be diagnosed with a second episode of “RSV” when it may be an infection with another cold-like virus.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine to prevent RSV, and antibiotics are not effective in treating it since RSV is a virus.

Children who may have difficulty breathing and eating are usually hospitalized so they can get oxygen treatment, fluids and suctioning of the upper airways.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

In otherwise healthy children, RSV symptoms are typically like those of a common cold and include:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Sore throat

The symptoms usually last about a week, but in rarer cases can last longer. If your child’s symptoms are mild, there’s no need to obtain a formal RSV diagnosis.

The symptoms usually last about a week, but in rarer cases can last longer.

When should I call the doctor?

Call your doctor if your little one shows any of these signs of a severe RSV infection:

  • Difficulty breathing or fast breathing
  • Gray or blue-tinged skin color (this typically shows up on the lips and fingernails)
  • Shallow cough that continues day and night
  • Fever
  • Thick nasal disc harge that is green, gray or yellow
  • Wheezing—a high-pitched noise usually heard when a child exhales
  • Apnea (stopping breathing)
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Poor appetite

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:

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

How can I prevent the spread of RSV?

Like the common cold, the most effective way to avoid infection is to encourage good hand-hygiene in children and adults who are around your baby.

Some other ways to prevent your baby from getting sick:

  • Keep your baby away from large crowds during the peak RSV season.
  • Steer clear of anyone with cold-like symptoms or a fever.
  • Try to keep young children away from your baby, since RSV is easily spread from child to child.
  • Don’t smoke anywhere near your baby. Exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of RSV illness.

How should I treat mild symptoms of RSV?

For mild symptoms, make your child as comfortable as possible, and provide plenty of fluids.

Some other tips include:

  • During the winter, use a cool-mist vaporizer to keep the air moist, which may help your little one breathe easier. Replace the water daily.
  • 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.

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.