RSV in babies (respiratory syncytial virus) can be very scary for some families. For the most part, RSV is mild, but for some susceptible babies, it can be serious. Find out who is most susceptible and what to do in this post.

RSV in Babies: Everything You Need to Know

No amount of hand-washing can keep all germs at bay. Eventually baby will get his first cold. And, unfortunately, sometimes that case of the sniffles can turn into something more serious, like RSV.

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • What RSV is
  • Signs and symptoms of RSV in babies
  • How to treat RSV
  • Plus, how to prevent RSV

What is RSV in Babies?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus, commonly referred to as RSV, is a respiratory virus spread among humans, typically during cold season (November through April). There are two strains, A and B, which can effect the severity of illness.

RSV causes cold-like symptoms that can be especially uncomfortable for infants, since they cannot clear mucus from their lungs and noses as effectively as older children and adults can. It’s important to take the proper steps to monitor and treat baby’s symptoms, as RSV can be serious in infants, especially those under 6 months.

RSV Symptoms in Infants and Babies

  • The RSV virus causes cold-like symptoms that last 1-2 weeks.
  • Symptoms usually appear three to five days after infection.

If you notice any of the following signs of RSV, call your pediatrician right away:

  • Coughing/wheezing that doesn’t stop
  • Gasping for breath or rapid breathing
  • Sunken chest when breathing
  • Irritability
  • Poor appetite/refusal to feed
  • Signs of dehydration (lack of tears or sunken soft spot)
  • Lethargy
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Blue color of mouth or fingernails
  • Cough producing yellow, green, or gray mucus
  • Fever

How is RSV Diagnosed?

Since RSV is so similar to the common cold, it’s difficult to diagnose without a test. A doctor can diagnose RSV by:

  • Taking a rapid RSV test (your provider will take a nasal swab, so a lab can test your mucus for the virus)
  • Or, taking a chest X-ray

If baby’s breathing seems labored…

Because RSV can make it difficult for your child to get enough oxygen, your pediatrician may also use a pulse oximeter to test blood oxygen saturation levels. If the test indicates baby isn’t getting enough oxygen, they may administer oxygen support. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required to ensure baby receives enough oxygen and stays hydrated.

Note: Because RSV usually runs its course on its own, your child’s doctor may not perform a formal test unless baby is particularly at-risk for complications (born premature or younger than six months, for example).

RSV Treatment

Antibiotics are not necessary or helpful since RSV is a virus, not a bacterial infection. (If RSV causes bronchiolitis or bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics may be prescribed.)

Home treatment (and a careful watch for complications) is suitable for treating mild to very moderate symptoms (even in babies). Here are some home remedies you can try, with your doctor’s approval:

  • Cool mist humidifier: This helps moisten, soothe, and decongest airways.
  • Nose Frida: Baby can’t effectively clear his/her own nose and lungs. This tool uses your own lung power to remove mucus from baby’s nose. Note: You can place a few drops of saline solution in each nostril to loosen things up first.
  • Hydrate: Hydration is key! Breastfeeding mamas should continue to breastfeed as often as possible. For babies older than six months, bone broth or this natural electrolyte drink may help.
  • Thyme tea: Purchase organic dried thyme at your grocery store, put 1 Tablespoon of the herb in a tea ball, soak in hot water, and put in bath water. Repeat up to six times per day. Studies suggest thyme helps expel phlegm and relieve congestion.
  • Epsom salt: You can also add up to 1 Tablespoon of Epsom salt to bath water to relax the muscles in the chest cavity and further break up mucus. (source)
  • Maty’s All Natural Baby Chest Rub: This lavender, eucalyptus, and chamomile rub is specially formulated to soothe cough and congestion. For young babies, rub it on the soles of their feet. For older children, rub directly on their chest and feet.
  • Garlic oilGarlic has long been used as a remedy for illness. Studies suggest a compound in garlic called allicin that boosts immune function. Rub garlic oil on baby’s feet. For older children, rub garlic oil directly on the chest.
  • Raw onions: This old wives tale hasn’t been substantiated with research, but it’s one many parents swear by. Chop up raw onions, cook them in water, allow to cool and then wrap in paper towels. Place the warm towels on baby’s feet for 10-15 minutes. For older children, you can place this directly onto the chest. You can also chop up raw onion and place in same room where baby sleeps.
  • Coldcalm Baby: This infant-safe Coldcalm comes in single-use liquid doses to temporarily relieve sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion.
  • Vitamin D: To help boost baby’s immune system, administer 400 IUs of vitamin D drops per day. Try this brand.
  • Infant probiotics: Look for an infant probiotic with B. bifidumB. infantis, and L. reuteri to help support baby’s immune system. This is one of my favorites. Read all about infant probiotics here.
  • XLEAR: This helps thin mucus and support the nasal microbiome. Administer prior to using the Nose Frida. You can alternate with saline.

Additional treatment options for the breastfeeding mama

A breastfeeding mom can help baby fight the virus by taking a variety of supplements herself, since beneficial properties will pass through breastmilk:

  • Vitamin C: Proven to boost the immune system and because it’s water soluble, it passes through to milk. You can get with camu camu powder or another food-based vitamin C supplement.
  • Vitamin D: To ensure your breast milk has am adequate amount of vitamin D, studies suggest taking 5,000-6,000 IU of vitamin D per day. (source) Try taking three capsules of this brand per day.
  • Probiotics: I like this brand, but I’ve also tried Dr. Ohhira and Bio-K. You can also eat fermented foods, like kombucha, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
  • Elderberry syrupI don’t recommend taking elderberry syrup every day (it can send your immune system into overdrive), but it has been proven to reduce the severity and duration of colds. (source). Take 1-2 TB per day until baby feels better.

How to Treat Post-Coughing Vomiting

With RSV, congestion can be bad and mucus production is immense. As a result, babies can cough so hard that they throw up. For post-coughing vomiting, look into homeopathic remedies, like Ipecacuanha 30C, that can help when dissolved in breast milk and administered. Always talk to healthcare provider before giving baby any homeopathic remedies!

To help post-coughing vomiting, you can also try to minimize the passage of mucus by:

  • Holding baby upright while nursing or feeding
  • Placing baby to sleep in a reclined or more upright position whenever possible

Is RSV Contagious?

This virus is very contagious and can be easily spread by infected droplets (from sneezing, coughing, or talking) that get into the eyes, nose, or mouth.

  • RSV can live on hands for 30 minutes or on contaminated objects (think supermarket carts and toys) for hours.
  • RSV is typically contagious for 3 to 8 days.

How to Prevent RSV in Babies and Infants

Prevention is key in keeping RSV out of your home and is especially important if you have a high-risk child.

Here are some things you can do to minimize the risk:

  • Wash hands frequently
  • Minimize contact with older siblings, particularly if they’re sick (You can ask older kids to kiss or touch baby’s feet, rather than face.)
  • Don’t allow utensil or food sharing
  • Disinfect surfaces with thieves spray
  • Wash bedding/toys often
  • Avoid crowds or exposure to people who are sick
  • Continue to breastfeed if you already are. Take vitamin D, probiotics, and elderberry syrup to impart the benefits to baby through your milk.
  • Give baby vitamin D drops and probiotics regularly (older children can also take elderberry syrup)

Unfortunately, a child can get RSV multiple times in the same season. There is one bit of good news, though: It’s usually more mild the second or third time.

When RSV Gets Really Serious…

For most babies and children, RSV causes a mild cold. But in severe cases, babies may need more conventional treatment, including:

  • A nebulizer: If, despite treatment, baby is having trouble breathing, a nebulizer may be necessary to provide oxygen support. A nebulizer converts a medicine to a mist that baby inhales.

In very severe cases of RSV in babies, hospitalization may be necessary. In the hospital, doctors may administer oxygen treatment, IV fluids, and/or a ventilator to help with breathing. This is usually only necessary for a few days.

Those most at risk for these complications are:

  • Babies born prematurely: Premature infants often have lower lung function, making respiratory illness particularly dangerous.
  • Children younger than 2 born with heart or lung disease: Babies with congenital heart disease who contract RSV are 24 times more likely to die than those who don’t contract the disease.
  • Infants and young children whose immune systems are weakened: Certain conditions or procedures (chemo or a transplant, for example) can make babies more susceptible to RSV.
  • Babies under 8 to 10 weeks old: At such a young age, babies systems aren’t mature enough to adequately fight off infection and viruses.

Though RSV generally runs its course with proper symptom management, babies are particularly sensitive—their symptoms can escalate quickly.

Keep a close eye on baby and stay in touch with your child’s pediatrician.

How about you?

Have you, your baby or a loved one had RSV? How was it treated? Share with us in comments below!

  1. I didn’t get him checked for RSV but my baby had a bad cold at 2 weeks old, so sad and scary. In addition to arm and hammer nasal spray and using a snot sucker like baby frida, I would sit in the bathroom with steam from the shower or would boil water on the stove and carefully hold him close by many times a day.

  2. An old recipe;
    1/3 cup coconut oil
    2 Tablespoons Olive oil
    8 cloves peeled garlic
    5 drops lavender oil
    Blend at high speed until liquified, may strain if desire. Pour into glass jar. Refrigerate any unused salve.
    *Rub liberally on back, over lungs, up and around throat and ears and under arms, and on the soles of the feet.
    *Use as often as you nurse, more often if they are sicker. Can be used on newborns too.
    *Older, less sick children should have at least 4 times a day.
    I’m a mother of many, many, many children. This works EACH and EVERY time. This and lots of snuggles, soft kisses, soothing words and of course prayers.

  3. My son had it at about a year and a half. We didn’t end up having to do a nebulizer, but they did subject him to an unnecessary chest x-ray, instead of waiting for the RSV test results to come back 5 mins later. 🙁 Before the RSV, he got colds once a month, it seemed. After the RSV, he barely ever got colds…maybe once a year. So, it actually did strengthen his immune system in the long run.

  4. My son had RSV and Pneumonia at 7 weeks. It was SO scary! He was on a ventilator because he could not breathe on his own. My heart goes out to anyone who has a child dealing with such and awful sickness!

    • My son too. We spent a week in hospital when.he was 2 months old with RSV. It’s tough.

  5. My baby got RSV this past January when she was just shy of three months old. My almost two year old had it too. It was very severe in my baby and we called an ambulance and went to the children’s hospital when she was grunting when breathing. She spent a week in the pediatric icu sedated and on breathing assistance (bipap). Thankfully they were able to prevent ventilator use by using breathing treatments when she got really bad.

  6. My 5 month old, Mateo, had RSV a month ago. Started with congestion, led to a cough, and one night of a low grade fever. We diffused essential oils, used a humidifier, our Nose Frida was greasy as always, extra feedings of BM, steam baths, and I upped my vitamin C a tad and added some elderberry drops to my diet. Baby kicked it in 5-6 Days. Didn’t really affect him much, other than I had to sleep with him upright at night for two nights. Our first cold wasn’t fun but we pulled out all the stops to help our LO.

    • The nose Frida was GREAT, not greasy lol Gotta love autocorrect.

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About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 75,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

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