What Parents Need to Know About RSV

There’s something in the air and while it’s not snow, it’s still something seasonal – respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

RSV is a common condition that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract and typically infects children by age 2. The virus usually only causes mild, cold-like symptoms; however, some children can suffer complications.

Premature and young infants or any child with a health condition that affects the lungs, heart or immune system are at an elevated risk of developing bronchiolitis or pneumonia if infected with RSV. Older adults also are considered high risk. 

“RSV is especially concerning for infants since the tiny breathing tubes of their lungs, called bronchioles, are very small and their chest walls are not as well-developed as older children,” said Jeanna R. Auriemma, MD. assistant professor of pediatrics at Brenner Children’s Hospital, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “Bronchiolitis occurs when these breathing tubes are swollen and filled with mucus from viruses including RSV, and it can cause rapid and labored breathing for the infant.”

Symptoms of RSV infection may include: runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing. These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In premature infants and newborns, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Similar to other viruses, there are no effective medications to treat RSV. Gently suctioning the nose to remove mucus and giving a fever reducer such as acetaminophen may make the child more comfortable.

Auriemma and the CDC recommend parents and caregivers help prevent RSV by following these tips: 

  • Wash toys regularly especially when a child or a playmate is sick.
  • Avoid touching a child’s face with unwashed hands. 
  • Limit time spent in child-care centers or other potentially contagious settings.
  • Avoid exposing an infant to people who have fevers or colds. 
  • Frequently disinfect hard surfaces. 

“Most children experiencing RSV recover in one to two weeks although the cough can linger,” said Auriemma. “It’s important to be aware that if your child or anyone at risk of severe RSV starts to have difficulty breathing, a high fever or a blue color to the skin, particularly on the lips or around their fingernails, they should receive  immediate medical attention.”