As RSV cases continue to rise in parts of the US, with some areas approaching seasonal peak levels, those typical “bugs” your child brings home can make you feel nervous. With so much hectic these days, it can be hard to figure out what’s behind a constant cough, especially if your child is very young.
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can include symptoms similar to a common cold. However, the virus can turn into something more serious. RSV can infect people of all ages, but it is most serious in older adults and young children.
In general, almost all children under the age of 2 have been exposed to RSV, but due to all the pandemic response in recent years, children have not been exposed to RSV as much. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing such a high spike this year, as well as RSV in children older than 2 years.
RSV symptoms can vary and usually start four to six days after infection. The most common symptoms may include:
• Runny nose
• Little appetite
Young babies with RSV may be fussy, sluggish, or have trouble breathing.
Your pediatrician will be able to determine if it is a common cold, COVID-19, or RSV, if you are concerned about the symptoms your child is displaying. They may do tests, such as chest x-rays, to see if pneumonia has developed.
When should you call a doctor?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note an increase in emergency room visits associated with RSV. However, most cases will clear up on their own within a week or two. Symptoms are usually worse on days three to five of infection. Only 3 percent of children with RSV will require a hospital stay.
If symptoms become severe, contact your pediatrician immediately. This may include:
• Symptoms of bronchiolitis
• Symptoms of dehydration (only one wet diaper in 8 hours or more)
• labored breathing
• Gray or blue lips, tongue, or skin
• A significant decrease in activity or alertness
Although RSV is common, and it may seem difficult to determine how serious it will become, there are some risk factors that parents should be aware of.
• Children who are born prematurely or are 6 months of age or younger are at higher risk for complications from RSV
• Children with chronic heart or lung disease, or a weakened immune system, may also be susceptible to RSV
There is currently no vaccine to prevent RSV and no specific treatment for the infection. As stated, most cases will resolve themselves. However, there are some things you can do to help relieve symptoms:
• Control pain and fever with over-the-counter medications (consult your pediatrician for guidance and never give children aspirin)
• Drink much liquid
• Nasal saline solution to help with breathing
• Cool mist humidifier to help dissolve mucus
Talk to your health care provider before giving your child any over-the-counter cold medicine.
how it spreads
RSV is usually spread through coughs and sneezes, but it can be spread when someone touches a surface that has the virus on it and then touches their face, before washing their hands.
The following tips can help reduce your family’s risk:
• Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hands.
• Avoid close contact with others, especially those who are sick
• Wash your hands often
• Do not touch your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in the home
• If you are sick, stay home
The best way to prevent the transmission of RSV is what we have been doing very well in recent years: Scrupulous hand hygiene by washing our hands frequently with soap and water, and by cleaning surfaces that little hands reach, such as doorknobs and door handles. Also, wear a mask if you have any respiratory symptoms.
With knowledge of what RSV looks like, and how it is different from other viruses, you can take steps to keep your child as healthy as possible throughout the year.
For more information, visit the CDC website.
This article was contributed by Frederick Kuo, MD, MBA, who serves as Chief Medical Officer for UnitedHealthcare, Northern California.