A spiking fever and green poop are only a few of the strange (and sometimes scary) symptoms parents worry about. And cold and flu season, when illnesses like RSV are more prevalent, can be particularly disconcerting.
While there are steps parents can take to help prevent their babies from getting sick, no amount of handwashing is guaranteed to keep germs at bay. Eventually baby will get his first cold.
RSV is a common—and very contagious—illness that most kids get before they turn two, but it can be particularly dangerous for infants and babies with compromised or immature immune systems. Here, we’ll explain exactly what RSV is, outline the symptoms, and talk about what to do if you suspect your child caught the virus.
What is RSV in Babies?
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.
For most babies and children, RSV causes a mild cold. In some cases, it may cause bronchiolitis (lower respiratory tract infection) or pneumonia. 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.
RSV in infants, especially those under 6 months, should be taken seriously—it is the leading cause of hospitalization in infants. In fact, roughly 5 percent to 20 percent of infants and children that get RSV will require hospitalization.
RSV Symptoms in Infants and Babies
The RSV virus can cause 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
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Gasping for breath or rapid breathing
- Sunken chest when breathing
- Poor appetite/refusal to feed
- Signs of dehydration (lack of tears or sunken soft spot)
- Sleeping less
- Blue color of mouth or fingernails
- Cough producing yellow, green, or gray mucus
Since RSV is so similar to a common cold, it’s difficult to diagnose without a test. A doctor can diagnose RSV by taking a rapid RSV test, sending a mucus sample for lab testing, or taking a chest X-ray.
Many doctors don’t recommend these tests, since RSV usually runs its course on its own. In some cases, though, doctors need to confirm an RSV diagnosis. Since the virus can cause serious complications for high risk children, like premature babies, your doctor will take baby’s age (and other health concerns) into consideration.
If baby’s breathing seems labored, a pulse oximeter may be used to test blood oxygen level to ensure baby is getting enough oxygen. If baby isn’t getting enough oxygen, isn’t breathing well, or is dehydrated, a hospital stay may be necessary. Most hospital stays for RSV last just a few days.
Is RSV Contagious?
RSV 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.
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.) Since RSV generally runs its own course, home treatment (and a careful watch for complications) is suitable for treating mild to moderate symptoms (even in babies). Here’s how to treat RSV at home:
- A humidifier helps moisten, soothe, and decongest airways.
- A bulb syringe removes mucus from baby’s nose (place a few drops of saline solution in each nostril prior to using the syringe).
- Hydration is key! Breastfeeding mamas should continue to breastfeed. Bone broth or this natural electrolyte drink may help hydrate babies older than 6 months.
- Ibuprofen can be used to lower fever (over-the-counter cough or cold medicine and aspirin is never recommended for babies)
In some moderately severe cases a nebulizer breathing treatment may be necessary. A nebulizer converts a medicine to a mist that baby inhales.
In more 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.
If a child’s symptoms are serious enough to be life-threatening your doctor may consider administering an anti-viral called Ribavirin. It’s important to note that its use is controversial due to safety concerns and cost.
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 at home. Here are some things you can do to minimize the risk:
- Wash hands frequently
- 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 (breastmilk contains antibodies to help inoculate baby)
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.
Does RSV in Babies Have Long-term Effects?
Not usually. RSV generally only lasts for a couple of weeks—at most—and has no lasting effects for most patients. Some patients with RSV develop asthma later in life, but it’s unclear whether RSV in babies causes asthma later or if children who are more susceptible to asthma are also more susceptible to RSV.
How About You?
Has your child had RSV? What were the symptoms? How long did it last and how severe was it?