As COVID-19 and the flu remain top of mind for many, another infection disease is currently causing panic, especially among parents: respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). While RSV is common, with many cases often mimicking the common cold, it can, in more severe incidents, cause breathing problems and even pneumonia.
While anyone can get RSV, kids are especially vulnerable because it’s highly contagious and can be spread by touching contaminated surfaces. This is one reason why RSV spreads quickly in schools and daycare centers.
Each year, about 2.1 million children younger than five get diagnosed with RSV, according to the Centers For Disease Control, with an additional 58,000 to 80,000 kids having to be hospitalized with the virus. Right now, however, the CDC reports that the hospitalization average for RSV is 9 out of every 100,000 people — a big increase so early in the season.
To help parents everywhere understand RSV better, in this article, you’ll learn: what RSV is; who is at risk of getting RSV; why RSV is surging this year; what the symptoms of RSV are; how RSV is treated; and how to prevent RSV.
Table of Contents
What is RVS?
RSV is short for respiratory syncytial virus, which infects the lungs and respiratory tract, according to Mayo Clinic. It gets into the body through the nose, mouth or eyes, when a person breathes in respiratory droplets from an infected person or touches a surface that’s contaminated with those droplets and then touches their mucus membranes. An infected person is most contagious in the first week of being sick, but RSV can sometimes spread up to a month after symptoms pass.
Who is at risk of getting RSV?
Anyone can get the illness. “RSV is very common,” says Kristin L. Moffitt, M.D., associate physician in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “We all probably get exposed to RSV a couple of times a year, and most children have had the virus by the time they’re two years old.”
Certain people, however, are at higher risk of complications from RSV, including:
- premature babies, as their lungs have not fully developed
- babies under 6 months old
- people with heart or lung disease
- people with weakened immune systems
- people who have had an organ transplant, or who are undergoing chemotherapy
Why is RSV surging this year?
RSV is going to have a big impact this fall and winter, says Czer Anthoney Lim, M.D., M.S., director of emergency pediatric medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, and associate professor of emergency medicine, pediatrics and medical education at Icahn School of Medicine. “We’re already [in the fall] seeing the number of patients with RSV that we would normally see in January,” Dr. Lim says.
It’s believed that the relaxation of COVID-19 prevention measures is a big reason for the uptick. “RSV itself has not changed in terms of severity,” says Dr. Moffitt. “What’s likely happening with the current surge is, we’ve basically missed two full virus seasons because of COVID-19 masking and quarantine. So children’s immune systems are more susceptible to getting sick from RSV because they have not been exposed to viruses as they normally would be.”
What are the symptoms of RSV?
According to Cleveland Clinic, the symptoms of RSV in babies include:
- Runny nose
- Fever over 100 degrees
- Loss of appetite
- Pauses in breathing
In older children, RSV symptoms include:
- Runny and congested nose
“In adults, the symptoms tend to include a sore throat or hoarse voice,” says Dr. Lim.
How is RSV treated?
If your child has symptoms of RSV, give them a COVID-19 test right away because it can be hard to distinguish RSV symptoms from COVID-19, a cold, or the flu. Repeat the test a day later to confirm the results.
If RSV is the culprit, though, your doctor won’t prescribe any medication. “There’s not an antibiotic or antiviral medication right now that can treat RSV,” says Dr. Lim. “We focus on supportive treatment, which means you can give your child Tylenol or Motrin at home, for the most part.”
You also want to focus on clearing your child’s congestion. “RSV can cause a lot of nasal draining – you’ll see a lot of clear liquid coming out of your child’s nose,” says Dr. Moffitt. “A cool mist humidifier can be very helpful in your child’s room near the bed or crib. Also, you can use bulb suction – those little devices you can buy at the pharmacy. They’re really helpful for clearing out secretions in your child’s nose before feeding. When your child can’t breathe through their nose, they also can’t breathe out of their mouths and eat at the same time.”
What are the danger signs that RSV is serious?
“You need to call your pediatrician if your child is breathing fast,” says Dr. Lim. “Watch to see if your child is using their belly to breathe — you’ll see their rib muscles or neck muscles moving up and down, and their head bobbing as they take breaths. That’s a warning sign because these muscles get tired, and the risk is that your child might not be able to breathe on their own.” If your kid is struggling for breath, call 911 immediately. If you notice them wheezing or their lips or fingernails turn bluish, that could mean RSV has progressed to pneumonia or bronchiolitis. Call your doctor then, too, or take your child to the ER.
Also, watch for signs of dehydration. “Your infant should be making 4 to 5 wet diapers in an eight-hour period,” says Dr. Moffitt. “Less than that could indicate a problem. Another sign is if your child is crying but not making tears. Also look in your child’s mouth — it should look moist. If it appears dry or chalky, that could be a symptom of dehydration so you want to call your doctor.” Other signs to look out for in a baby: difficulty waking up or not wanting to feed.
How to prevent RSV:
“Most likely, if your child gets RSV this year, next year it’ll be a milder case if they get it again,” says Dr. Lim. Still, it’s important to try to avoid RSV infection for your child now if you can.
The common-sense strategies your family is already familiar with can go a long way. “Masking during play dates can still be very helpful,” says Dr. Lim. You may also want your child to continue masking at school. Avoid having sick people visit your home; wash your hands frequently, and make sure your children do as well; and disinfect frequently touched surfaces like tables, toys and door handles.
In most cases, children recover from RSV in two weeks. Don’t panic — comfort your child through their symptoms and reach out to your health care provider with any questions you have.
Lisa Mulcahy is an internationally established health writer whose credits include Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Oprah Daily, Woman’s Day, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parade, Health, Self, Family Circle and Seventeen. She is the author of eight best-selling books, including \The Essentials of Theater.\
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