RSV: What Parents Should Know

What is it and who does it affect?

RSV is one of the many viruses that cause respiratory illness―affecting the nose, throat, and lungs. The virus typically occurs in the late Fall through early Spring, but can vary in different parts of the country.

Many children contract RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) at least once before the age of two, and it is one of the most common causes of the common cold for all patients, including adults. For most healthy children, RSV is similar to having a cold, and frequently can be managed at home. However, some children can get sicker with RSV and may have to be hospitalized.

RSV spreads just like a common-cold virus―from one person to another. It enters the body through the nose or eyes.  Symptoms can appear 2 to 8 days after contact with RSV. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people infected with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days.  Keep in mind, children and adults can get RSV multiple times–even during a single season. Often, however, repeat infections are less severe than the first one.

With mask-wearing and physical distancing during the height of COVID-19, there were fewer cases of RSV. However, once safety measures relaxed with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, a rise in RSV cases began in Spring 2021.

What are the symptoms?

Cold symptoms may include a fever (temperature of 100.4 or higher), cough, congestion, runny nose, sneezing, fussiness and poor feeding.  For some cases of RSV that lead to bronchiolitis, additional symptoms are present, such as: fast breathing, flaring of nostrils, head bobbing with breathing, rhythmic grunting during breathing, belly breathing, tugging between ribs and/or the lower neck and wheezing.

Children with a higher risk for severe RSV infection include infants aged 12 weeks or younger, premature infants, and those with chronic lung disease, certain types of heart defects, and weakened immune systems.

RSV symptoms are typically at their worst on days 3 through 5 of illness.  A cold from RSV can last for 1-2 weeks. Fortunately, almost all children recover from an RSV infection on their own. 

What can parents do?

To help your child feel more comfortable, begin by doing what you would do for any bad cold: apply nasal saline with gentle suctioning to allow easier breathing and feeding; place a cool mist humidifier in the child’s bedroom to help break up the mucus, fluids and frequent feedings, administer acetaminophen for those older than three months and ibuprofen for those older than six months to help with low grade fevers.

Call your primary care provider if your child has symptoms of bronchiolitis (listed above), dehydration (fewer than 1 wet diaper every 8 hours), pauses or difficulty breathing, gray or blue color to tongue, lips or skin, or significantly decreased activity and alertness.

There are tests available to diagnose RSV, but we don’t routinely test children older than one year of age. This age group usually doesn’t have complications from the virus and it doesn’t impact our overall treatment plan.

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