If you knew that a very common and very contagious virus could send your baby to the hospital, you would do whatever you could to protect them. But many people are unaware of the threat that respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) poses to infants.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year in the United States, more than 57,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized due to RSV. These hospitalizations are mostly due to the severe lung infections that RSV can cause.
Dr. Michael Stoiko, a pediatric intensivist at NHRMC, said this year’s RSV season has been an especially bad one.
Those with weakened immune systems, people with chronic lung disease, and the elderly can also be susceptible to a severe illness caused by RSV.
RSV can spread easily during the holiday season because people are visiting relatives, hugging loves ones, being in crowds while shopping or at events, and coming in contact with surfaces many touch while traveling on planes or trains.
It can also be spread through simple direct contact such as shaking hands.
Some symptoms of RSV include:
- Reduced appetite
- Runny nose
- Trouble breathing
“RSV starts with a runny nose and then moves down the respiratory tract, killing cells as it goes,” Dr. Stoiko explained. “The next symptom that will develop is a cough, followed by difficulty breathing.”
Dr. Stoiko also says that babies with RSV may have an increase in reflux and that some babies with RSV will never develop a fever.
He says that, generally, those with RSV will be the sickest for four to five days and then improve but remain sick for a few weeks.
One of the things that makes RSV so dangerous is that for older children and adults, the virus may cause such minor symptoms that they do not even seem sick enough to avoid contact with others.
Ways to keep your baby safe:
- Wash your hands often and teach young children to do the same
- Avoid contact with sick people
- Keep your infant away from crowds whenever possible
- Ask people to avoid direct contact with your baby such as kissing
- Ask those who want to hold or touch your baby to wash their hands first
- Disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched
- Wash toys regularly
- Never share drinking glasses with others
- Keep older children or other family members away from your baby if they have RSV symptoms
Dr. Stoiko urges parents to be thoughtful and cautious, especially during their baby’s first few months, but not to be overly paranoid about RSV.
“Most kids will get RSV before the age of two. In fact, ninety-seven percent of two-year-olds have RSV antibodies – indicating that they have been exposed to the virus.”
RSV can survive on hands for more than 30 minutes and can live for up to 6 hours on surfaces such as toys, keyboards, and doorknobs. RSV is largely spread by contact. Dr. Stoiko lists childcare centers, grocery carts, and nurseries as common exposure sites.
During the holidays, it is important to remind relatives who may be in town to visit a new baby to wash their hands, avoid kissing the baby, and even to stay home if they are sick.
If your baby has shallow breathing, a poor appetite, is less active than usual, cold symptoms that seem severe, a shallow cough, or seems more fussy or irritable than usual, you should contact your doctor.
You should seek immediate medical attention if your baby has a high fever, is struggling to breathe, or if you notice your child appears blue around the lips or fingernails as this may indicate that your baby is not getting enough oxygen.
There is no cure for RSV so all that can be done for those who contract it is treatment of symptoms. Infants with severe symptoms due to RSV may need help breathing or treatment for dehydration.
For adults and older children, RSV is generally not cause for concern but for infants, those with weakened immune systems, and the elderly, the virus can cause life-threatening or even fatal infections.
So, this holiday season, wash your hands often, and remember to spread cheer, not illness.