RSV: What Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

Many parents eventually find themselves dealing with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (known as RSV). RSV is a very common (and extremely contagious) virus that affects children and babies. In fact, most children suffer from the virus by the age of 2. In the United States alone, nearly 60,000 children are hospitalized with the virus by the age of 5 every year; those who are hospitalized are typically babies under 6 months old.

Although most infants recover within a week or two, certain babies are at a heightened risk of severe or even life-threatening RSV. These include:

• Premature babies

• Babies with chronic lung or heart disease

• Babies with severe asthma

• Babies with weakened immune systems

• Babies with neuromuscular disorders

What RSV symptoms should you watch out for?

RSV produces cold-like symptoms, such as runny nose and cough, which can last for up to two weeks. Symptoms of RSV in babies can include:

• A wet cough, with gray, yellow, or green mucus

• Malaise or lethargy

• Refusal to eat

• Signs of dehydration (dry mouth or lips, dark-colored urine, no tears while crying, excessive sleepiness)

• Fever

Serious symptoms of RSV include:

• Rapid breathing, or difficulty breathing

• Bluish-colored skin (due to lack of oxygen)

If you notice any of these symptoms in your baby, it’s important to call your child’s pediatrician right away.

How is Respiratory Syncytial Virus spread?

RSV is often spread by touching a surface contaminated by the virus. Countertops, tables, and toys are commonly contaminated surfaces that can cause RSV in a baby. Children catch the virus easily because they touch these things and then put their fingers in their nose or mouth. The virus can also be airborne, entering the nose, eyes, or mouth.

Why can RSV in babies become serious?

Babies infected with RSV have an increased likelihood of developing potentially life-threatening illnesses such as bronchiolitis, which causes restricted breathing due to swelling of the small airways in the lungs. Increased mucus production is also a possibility, as is pneumonia, which is an infection of the lungs that also causes restricted breathing due to inflammation. Any baby can contract RSV, but those under 6 months of age are especially vulnerable. Fortunately, this virus is preventable if a few precautions are taken.

How do doctors test for RSV?

Doctors typically rely on a blood test for RSV diagnosis. Lab professionals examine the blood for the presence of antibodies to the RSV pathogen. The presence of these antibodies indicates a positive test result.

What’s the best way to prevent Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

There are several steps you can take to prevent your baby from becoming infected:

• Wash your hands and your baby’s hands often, especially if you’ve been in contact with anyone who has cold symptoms.

• Try to avoid exposing your baby to crowds.

• Keep your baby away from cigarette smoke.

• If possible, avoid putting your baby in day care during high-risk times, like during late fall to early spring.

While there is no vaccination for this virus, a medication called palivizumab may protect high-risk babies from getting Respiratory Syncytial Virus. This is an injection that is typically administered by a doctor every 28 to 30 days during RSV season. There are also treatments available to help ease your baby’s symptoms should she become infected with the virus.

How is RSV treated?

There are several things you can do to keep your baby comfortable at home while she is suffering from RSV:

• Keep your baby hydrated.

• Put saline nasal drops in his or her nose to help loosen mucus by using a bulb syringe.

• To keep your baby’s airways moist, use a cool-mist vaporizer.

• Keep your baby away from second-hand cigarette smoke.

Call your child’s pediatrician immediately if your child has difficulty breathing or has bluish skin (which indicates a lack of oxygen).

How long does it take to get over RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus will normally go away on its own within a week or two; however, if your baby gets a serious illness caused by this virus, she may be given oxygen, IV fluids, and frequent nasal suctioning to help with symptoms. Should bacterial pneumonia develop, your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics for the secondary infection.

While the Respiratory Syncytial Virus can develop into serious illnesses for babies, it is preventable and treatable if detected right away. If you suspect that your baby has RSV, be sure to contact your pediatrician.

Photo: Getty

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