For the most part, RSV in babies is mild, but for some susceptible babies, it can be serious. Find out who is most susceptible and what to do in this post.
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.
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
- Poor appetite/refusal to feed
- Signs of dehydration (lack of tears or sunken soft spot)
- Interrupted sleep
- Blue color of mouth or fingernails
- Cough producing yellow, green, or gray mucus
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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).
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 oil: Garlic 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.
- Baby probiotics: Look for an infant probiotic with B. bifidum, B. infantis, and L. reuteri to help support baby’s immune system. This is one of my favorites. Read all about baby 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 syrup: I 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!