What is RSV?

Health Bytes

Little ones seem to get one cold after another. Trust us – it’s not just your child. As their immune systems are still being developed, and they haven’t yet been exposed to viruses, their bodies are building defenses. Most of the time, these colds just need to run their courses. But respiratory illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), should be taken more seriously. It might look like an ordinary cold at first, so here’s what you need to know about RSV.

The Symptoms of RSV

RSV begins like any other respiratory illness. Like most respiratory illnesses, RSV occurs most frequently between November and April. Symptoms usually appear 2 to 8 days after exposure to the virus. The most common symptoms are stuffy nose, coughing, irritability, wheezing and fever.

Which Children are at Greater Risk

In otherwise healthy children, an RSV infection will resolve itself with few complications. However, infants and children younger than age 2 are still at greater risk of serious effects from RSV simply because their chest wall is not as well developed. Young children are not as easily able to get rid of the mucus in their lungs, which can lead to secondary infections. 

Children who were born prematurely or spent time on a ventilator may have more scarring of the lungs. This scarring makes it more difficult for them to fight off the illness, which places them at greater risk of secondary infections such as bronchitis or bronchiolitis.

How to Treat RSV Infections

Most cases of RSV go away on their own. Many children may not even need to see a doctor for formal diagnosis as long as symptoms remain stable and don’t get worse. However, some may be hospitalized to receive breathing treatments. This should only last a few days. According to the Centers for Disease Control, even those who are hospitalized with RSV recover within 1 to 2 weeks.

Here’s how you can keep your little one more comfortable while he or she is dealing with an RSV infection:

  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer. Adding moisture to the air will help your little one breathe more comfortably and will prevent nasal passages from getting uncomfortably dry. Be sure to keep the vaporizer clean, since the moisture is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Use a nasal aspirator (suction bulb) for infants or help older children regularly blow their noses.
  • Provide plenty of fluids to keep him or her well-hydrated.
  • Give a non-aspirin pain reliever, such as acetaminophen.

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Image via CDC.

When to Call the Doctor

Even though most cases of RSV are not serious, some signs indicate that you should call the doctor. Here are warning signs to watch for:

  • Excessive wheezing
  • Fast breathing or significant difficulty with breathing
  • Blue or gray skin tones
  • Worsening cough
  • Prolonged high fever
  • Thick, colored nasal discharge

Use a high-tech thermometer like Kinsa to keep track of the fever associated with a cold. As with most illnesses, prolonged or high fever is a sign that warrants a visit to the doctor. Fever can be normal but it can also be a signal of worsening illness. 

This post was written by Holly Case, a mom of three boys who lives in Texas. Learning how to care for her own kids was the start of a career in writing about parenting and health.