It’s one of the many seasonal illnesses that affect people this time of year. Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, can produce mild cold-like symptoms in adults. But for infants and young children, RSV can be a bigger concern.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists RSV as the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than one year of age. The agency also estimates that 57,000 children under five will be hospitalized this year due to RSV infection.
Trinity Health pediatrician Ndu Ugobi, MD, said the greatest challenge with RSV is how quickly the condition can escalate in some children. “Initially it behaves like a cold, with nasal congestion and coughing. But if it proceeds down the respiratory tract, it can affect the small breathing tubes of the lungs and become severe in just a few days,” he said.
RSV can produce some alarming symptoms in some cases. “Infants can appear to be hungry for air, with flaring of the nostrils or straining of the chest or stomach while breathing. Some exhibit rapid breathing or appear blue around the mouth, Dr. Ugobi said.
Another worrisome symptom can be dehydration due to decreased oral intake, as affected children become too sick to feed or drink well. Sometimes, a child may be hospitalized mainly due to dehydration.
The timing and severity of RSV circulation can vary from year to year, but in North America, it is generally seen in the winter months. Dr Ugobi noted that RSV is seasonal so it usually peaks in January and February. “If your child has a cold that’s not going away, I’d be suspicious of RSV and see a doctor,” he added.
Visits to a pediatrician or other healthcare provider for an RSV infection are common. During such visits, the provider will evaluate how severe the child’s RSV infection is to determine if the patient should be hospitalized.
Children most at risk for RSV include very young infants or those born prematurely, as well as young children with chronic lung and/or heart conditions or with a weakened immune system.
RSV can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or it can be passed along by touching a surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touching the face before washing hands. Additionally, it can spread through direct contract with the virus, like kissing the face of a child with RSV. This is why it’s important to be proactive.
“People with cold-like symptoms should avoid interacting with children at high risk for severe RSV disease,” Dr. Ugobi said. “If this isn’t possible, they should follow universal precautions such as washing their hands before being in contact with such children.”
Preventive steps include:
- Avoid close contact with sick people.
- Wash hands often with soap and water.
- Avoid touching face with unwashed hands.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces.
- Stay at home when you are sick.
- Avoid taking at-risk children to crowded places.
For information about Trinity Health’s team of pediatricians, click here.