Don’t let respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) catch you off-guard

With each year’s first chill in the air, parents rush to stock up on cold medicine, tissues, and vitamin supplements. But while most moms and dads are very familiar with colds and the flu, few of them are aware of another common and potentially life-threatening winter-season virus, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which leads to hospitalizations for 75,000 to 125,000 children in the U.S. each year.

RSV is a virus with symptoms very similar to the common cold. While nearly every child before the age of two contracts RSV, it can be especially dangerous for babies within the first six months of life. Babies with certain risk factors, such as prematurity (born before 37 weeks gestation age), are even more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from RSV-related infections. In fact, RSV infection is the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the United States.

Here’s what parents should know about RSV this winter season:

What Is RSV?

RSV is a virus that affects the upper respiratory system. It can be tricky for parents to tell the difference between RSV and a cold because RSV symptoms – a runny nose and fever – are similar to those of the common cold. However, some children with an increased risk of contracting the virus are seriously affected by RSV. In these children, the infection progresses to the lungs and can cause a severe cough, chest retractions, and wheezing.

Is My Baby At An Increased Risk for Severe RSV?

Most babies are able to fully recover from RSV, but some at-risk babies become seriously ill. Because premature babies have undeveloped lungs and fewer vital antibodies to fight off infection, they are more susceptible to serious RSV-related illnesses.

Other common risk factors include low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds), chronic lung disease, congenital heart disease, or weak immune systems. Babies with these risk factors should be watched more closely for signs of RSV, even after six months of age. A family history of asthma, frequent contact with other children (e.g., siblings or children at daycare), or exposure to environmental tobacco smoke can also contribute to an increased risk of contracting RSV.

What Would RSV Look Like In My Baby?

Even if your child isn’t at increased risk for RSV, you should still take symptoms seriously. If left unattended, RSV can result in more alarming symptoms than those resembling the common cold.

Symptoms of RSV include:

  • Severe coughing or wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing or rapid, gasping breaths
  • Blue color on the lips, mouth, or under the fingernails
  • High fever
  • Difficulty feeding or decreased intake of liquids
  • Fatigue

If you are concerned about your child’s symptoms, contact your pediatrician immediately.

When Is RSV Prevalent?

In most of North America, RSV is at epidemic levels beginning in the fall, and lasting through the spring. In some warm climates, such as Florida, RSV season starts as early as June. Because RSV season varies by geography and from year-to-year, you should ask your pediatrician for more information on when your baby might be most susceptible.

What Can I Do For My Baby?

Prevention is a major component to helping reduce the risk of your baby contracting RSV. The virus is very contagious and can be spread easily through touching, sneezing, and coughing. Additionally, the virus can live for hours on surfaces such as tissues and countertops.

You can take several easy steps to protect your baby:

  • Wash your hands frequently, and ensure those who come in contact with your baby do the same
  • Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you for on-the-spot cleansing
  • Avoid contact with others who may be sick
  • Wash toys, clothes, bedding, and your baby’s play area frequently
  • Never let anyone smoke around your baby
  • Avoid taking your baby to crowded areas such as malls and grocery stores whenever possible
  • If your baby is at high-risk for developing RSV, talk to your doctor about other preventive options

Finally, you can be an advocate for your baby. Make sure you’ve talked to your pediatrician before RSV season begins to know what steps you should take to prevent RSV, and how you can help give your baby the care he or she needs if RSV is contracted. 

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Dr. Kari Kassir is a Pediatric Critical Care Physician at Children’s Hospital of Orange County