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RSV in Children: What You Need to Know

January 24, 2023

Respiratory syncytial virus, otherwise known as RSV, has taken a toll recently, impacting the lives of many infants and children. It is important to know what RSV is and what symptoms to look for.

Mother taking the temperature of sick child
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If your child has a cold or other respiratory illness that is accompanied by a cough, it's important to watch for signs of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Even though the symptoms may seem similar to those of a regular cold, RSV can be serious and warrant a hospital visit in some infants and young children.

We’ve outlined the basics of what you need to know about RSV in children below.

What Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus is a common respiratory infection that affects the nasal passages and lungs. It is a member of the parainfluenza virus family and the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children under one year old.

Symptoms of RSV in children may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Decreased appetite
  • Wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Bluish skin color due to low oxygen levels

Children with RSV may also experience difficulty breathing and may require supplemental oxygen. In severe cases, children may need to be hospitalized for treatment.

When To Call the Doctor

If your child has any of the following symptoms, call your doctor or take them to the nearest hospital:

  • Persistent or high fever
  • Wheezing or labored, rapid breathing
  • Signs of dehydration, such as sunken eyes or fewer than one wet diaper every eight hours
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Decreased alertness

Is RSV Contagious?

RSV is highly contagious and is spread through respiratory secretions, such as saliva, mucus, and respiratory droplets produced when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. It can also be spread by touching contaminated surfaces (such as toys or door handles) and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes. People with RSV can be contagious for up to around one week or longer after being exposed.

How Is RSV Diagnosed?

RSV is generally diagnosed based on symptoms and an examination. The virus can be identified through a rapid antigen test that analyzes the sputum or mucus from the nasal passages. The sample can be collected either with a cotton swab or by suction through a bulb syringe.

Possible Complications of RSV in Children

RSV can cause a child to develop complications, including:

  • Croup. This is a common but serious respiratory condition in which the airways become inflamed and produce mucus. It can make breathing difficult and sometimes requires hospitalization.
  • Bronchiolitis. Another common condition that affects infants and young children, bronchiolitis causes inflammation of the small airways in the lungs. It may require hospitalization if it's severe or lasts longer than seven days.
  • Pneumonia: RSV can also lead to pneumonia, especially if the child has a weakened immune system. If a child shows any symptoms of pneumonia, call a doctor right away in order to get the appropriate treatment.

How Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Treated?

Most cases of RSV are mild and do not require medical treatment. There is no specific treatment for RSV, and most children will recover on their own within one to two weeks. However, supportive care can help to manage symptoms and prevent complications. This may include:

  • Fluids to help prevent dehydration
  • Oxygen therapy to help improve breathing
  • Medications to help reduce inflammation in the airways
  • Inhaled bronchodilators to help open the airways

Synagis (palivizumab) is a medication that can help prevent a serious lung infection caused by RSV. It can be given to infants and children at high risk during the RSV season. It is typically administered every month during the winter and early spring.

Care Tips for Children With RSV

  • Keep the child hydrated
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air and ease congestion
  • Clean the child's nose with a bulb syringe, as instructed by a doctor or healthcare provider to help keep mucus loose and make it easier to breathe
  • Administer saline nose drops or saline sprays, as instructed by a healthcare provider

Can Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Be Prevented?

To prevent the spread of RSV, it is important to practice good hygiene, such as washing hands frequently and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing. It is also important to avoid close contact with people who are sick, and to clean and disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated with the virus.

Take precautions during cold and flu season. During this time, consider staying home if your child is sick or has symptoms such as runny nose, cough or fever.

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