Henrico Doctors' Hospital - January 06, 2020

A common virus that quickly can turn serious

It may feel like the common cold to adults, but Respiratory Syncytial Virus—or RSV—can cause more severe symptoms in infants. RSV is a common respiratory virus that causes inflammation of the airways, which are already much smaller in infants. As the virus progresses, mucus secretions increase and the airways become narrower, which leads to breathing difficulty.

According to the CDC, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than one year of age. An estimated 57,000 children younger than five years old are hospitalized in the U.S. each year from RSV. Currently, there is no vaccine for RSV. However, premature infants and young children at risk for infection may be given palivizumab, a medicine that can help minimize the symptoms and severity of RSV.

Common cold or RSV?

Coughing, sneezing and a runny nose are typical symptoms of the common cold and can make your little one miserable. However, when those symptoms become worse and are coupled with symptoms of RSV, it’s time to see the doctor.

Signs your baby may have more than a cold include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Faster breathing
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy (decreased activity)
  • Pauses in breathing (called apnea)
  • Wheezing

If your baby has symptoms of a cold and is also having trouble breathing, that is a sign it is most likely RSV. Although almost all children will suffer from the common cold and have RSV, it is the most dangerous in young infants.

Helping your baby feel better

In most cases, your baby’s RSV symptoms can be treated at home and will go away after the virus runs its course in a week or two. You can help your baby feel better by offering plenty of fluids. Talk to your doctor about what types of over-the-counter pain relievers are safe for your baby.

If your baby is having trouble breathing, becomes dehydrated, or if the virus turns into bronchiolitis or pneumonia, they may need to be admitted to the hospital for care.

Preventing RSV in Infants

RSV is especially dangerous for certain children, including:

  • Infants born prematurely
  • Infants younger than six months
  • Children with chronic lung disease
  • Children with heart disease
  • Children with a weakened immune system

Take the following steps to help protect your baby from RSV:

  • Wash your hands every time before you come in contact with your baby
  • Keep your baby away from other children and adults who are sick
  • Avoid crowded areas such as malls while your baby is very young
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough
  • Disinfect objects and surfaces that your baby comes into contact with, such as teething toys or the grocery cart handle

Talk to your baby’s doctor about your child’s risk for RSV and steps you can take to keep your baby healthy.

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