Respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV) is a common virus that causes cold-like symptoms and is especially prevalent during cold and flu season, between October and March. Symptoms of RSV (including a runny nose, coughing, sneezing and fever) show up about 4 to 6 days after getting infected and – for many kids ages 3 and up – typically go away within a week or two. However, RSV can be very dangerous for babies, young children and children with weakened immune systems or other complex health conditions. In serious RSV cases, the virus can cause rapid and shallow breathing (called “belly breathing” because the stomach pulls in dramatically as the body works hard to get more air) and can progress to bronchiolitis or pneumonia, conditions which may require hospitalization.
Did you know? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday. However, one to two out of every 100 children younger than 6 months of age with RSV infection may need to be hospitalized. Learn more: https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html
It’s important to understand that there is no specific treatment for RSV; because it is a viral infection, antibiotics are not effective at treating RSV. For children whose infection does not require hospitalization, supportive care at home (rest, hydration and medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage fever and pain) is the recommended course of treatment.
Are babies at higher risk of severe illness due to RSV?
Yes. Babies 6 months old and younger are especially at risk of developing severe RSV symptoms because their immune systems have not fully developed yet.
What do RSV symptoms look like in babies?
You might not notice an RSV infection in your baby right away, since it takes a few days for serious symptoms to develop, and baby may not develop a fever. Early symptoms of RSV may include:
- Decrease in activity
- Increased fussiness
- Decrease in how much your baby wants to eat
- Runny nose
How can I protect my infant from RSV infection?
RSV is spread when someone who has an RSV infection has close contact with another person through talking, coughing, sneezing, hugging, or kissing. It can also be spread when a person sick with RSV touches or uses a shared surface (like door knobs, drinking glasses, etc.). For parents with babies at home, there are some important steps you can take to prevent an RSV infection:
- Insist people who interact with your baby are not sick and wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer first.
- Encourage all members of your family to get up-to-date on their vaccinations, including their annual flu shot and COVID vaccine and boosters, if eligible.
- Keep your baby in a smoke-free environment.
- Breastmilk can help reduce the risk for serious complications from RSV, so breastfeed baby if possible.
- Avoid taking your baby to places where lots of people gather indoors.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially before and after eating and after using the restroom.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your shirt sleeve, not with your hands.
- Don’t share drinking glasses or eating utensils with other people.
- Regularly disinfect shared surfaces, like doorknobs, refrigerator doors, light switches, etc.
- Ask your primary care provider about medicine available to help prevent severe illness in certain infants and children who are at high risk for severe disease.
If you have any specific questions or concerns about your baby’s health, contact your baby’s primary care provider. If you feel your child is having a medical emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room.