Respiratory syncytial virus, better known as RSV, is surging again, to the point where people who work in healthcare are worried about hospital resources becoming overwhelmed. The illness can be serious in babies and in elderly people, so read on for more about what to know.
What is RSV?
RSV is a virus that causes cold-like symptoms. Runny nose, coughing, sneezing, and wheezing are typical, and you may notice your child isn’t as interested in eating.
For most adults and even most children, RSV is no big deal. You get it, you cough and sniffle a bit, you get better. The American Association of Pediatrics notes that most people get it at least once before the age of 2. But it’s especially hard on babies, making it one of the leading causes of hospitalization in children under 1 year old.
Who is at risk of severe illness from RSV?
Premature infants and infants under 6 months old are at higher risk of becoming severely ill from RSV, the CDC says. So are children with weakened immune systems, congenital heart problems, chronic lung issues, or any condition that makes it harder to breathe or swallow.
Older adults are also at an increased risk. This includes people who are over 65, and those who have weakened immune systems or heart or lung disease.
What are the symptoms to watch out for?
The American Academy of Pediatrics describes RSV as first causing a cold with mild symptoms, and then sometimes progressing to bronchiolitis, which is more serious. Symptoms of a cold include fever, cough, congestion, fussiness, or trouble feeding. (If your child is 3 months old or younger, and has a temperature over 100.4, call the doctor right away. Infections that can cause a fever are especially dangerous in this age group.)
Bronchiolitis may include the symptoms above, plus signs that your child is having trouble breathing. These may include fast breathing, grunting noises, wheezing, or a chest that looks like it’s caving in with each breath. A lack of oxygen can also give the lips or other areas of skin a bluish color. If your baby is having trouble breathing, seek medical care right away.
The AAP recommends calling your child’s doctor if you notice any of the above signs of bronchiolitis, or if they show signs of dehydration like fewer than one wet diaper every eight hours, or if they are unusually lethargic.
Symptoms of RSV usually last five to seven days, but an illness that goes on beyond seven days is also worth asking the doctor about. (Sometimes it means that RSV started as a cold and has progressed to an ear infection.)
Are there tests and treatments for RSV?
If your child is doing well, especially if they are more than 3 months old, they usually won’t be tested for RSV specifically. You’ll know they have a respiratory virus, and that you need to wait it out. But if a child is very sick, they may need to be admitted to the hospital. Care is usually “supportive,” meaning that they may get fluids and help to breathe. There is no specific treatment for RSV, but there is a test that can detect it. (Your child will likely be tested for more than one thing—for example, it’s good to know whether they’re dealing with RSV, the flu, or COVID, all of which have specific tests that are available to doctors.)
There is not (yet) a vaccine for RSV. If your child is immunocompromised, there is an antibody treatment called palivizumab that may reduce their risk of contracting the disease. (If your child is a candidate for this, your doctor will probably mention it.)
How to prevent RSV
None of this will come as a surprise, but the way to reduce your chances of contracting RSV (or your child’s chances, or your elderly relative’s chances) are the usual ones to prevent illnesses like a cold:
- Wash your hands, and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands
- Don’t have close contact with sick people
- Cover your coughs and sneezes
- Clean surfaces
COVID precautions work well against RSV, too, including wearing masks. But RSV is more likely than COVID to hitch a ride on hands or surfaces, hence the extra attention to those when it comes to prevention.