RSV is a widespread cause of many respiratory conditions, including the common cold, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, pneumonia and croup. The symptoms of an RSV infection vary with age, previous exposure and health status. The very young, the elderly and those with chronic diseases are more likely to develop severe symptoms.
In children younger than three years old, RSV can cause illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Most children will have had an RSV infection by the age of two.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, bronchiolitis, a respiratory illness caused by RSV, is the most common cause of hospitalization in infants under 12 months old.
What is RSV?
"RSV stands for respiratory syncytial (sin-sish-uhl) virus and commonly causes bronchiolitis in infants and toddlers," said Fred Johnson, DO, Associate Medical Director for Pediatric Emergency Services at Medical City Children's Hospital. "It tends to affect young children more severely because it impedes the ability to breathe. This is especially concerning for newborns, premature babies and infants under two months old because they are very susceptible to complications from bronchiolitis."
RSV in babies and toddlers.
Bronchiolitis and pneumonia symptoms in children younger than 3 may include:
- Stuffy or runny nose
- High fever
- Severe cough
- Abnormal inactivity, disinterest or irritability
- Lack of appetite
- Discharge from the eyes
- Difficulty breathing, including
- Shortness of breath
- Fast breathing
- Flaring nostrils
- Sunken chest or belly (from increased effort of sucking in air)
- Color changes, such as dusky skin or bluish lips or fingernails
"Often, you can tell the difference between bronchiolitis and a typical, common cold," Dr. Johnson said. "Bronchiolitis will produce lots of nasal congestion, making your child work much harder to breathe. When a child is having a tough time breathing, that's an indicator that you need to seek immediate medical treatment, such as coming in to the ER for evaluation."
RSV in children and adults.
RSV in otherwise healthy children older than 3 and healthy adults can present as an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or bronchitis. Symptoms typically include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Mild cough
- Low-grade fever
- Discharge from the eyes
RSV testing and treatment.
"When children come to the ER with symptoms of bronchiolitis, there is a nasal swab test that can be done," said Dr. Johnson. "But more often than not, we make a clinical diagnosis, taking onto account the child's symptoms and whether it's the right time of year (fall and winter) for RSV infections."
There is no medication or antibiotic to treat RSV, so the goal of home care is to ease symptoms and make the patient more comfortable.
- Stay hydrated with water and fruit juice; this will also help thin nasal secretions
- Use a cool-mist humidifier to reduce stuffy nose and coughing
- Use saline (salt water) nasal drops to loosen mucous (and a bulb syringe on children too young to blow their noses)
- Administer age-appropriate non-aspirin pain and fever medication as needed
"With RSV, prevention is key, "said Dr. Johnson. "I recommend that families keep all sick individuals - anyone with a cough or cold or other symptoms - away from newborns. And healthy people should wash their hands before they hold a baby."
"Another typical way for infants to develop RSV is by picking it up from an older sibling who caught it at school or day care. Often, younger children aren't very vigilant about washing their hands or covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze."
Stay-well hygiene tips.
Dr. Johnson recommends these tips for controlling the spread of RSV. Teach kids to:
- Sneeze and cough into a tissue, upper sleeve or elbow
- Wash hands correctly and often
- Use hand gel if soap and water are unavailable
- Have kids avoid sharing food, toys and sippy cups when sick
- Keep sick children home until symptoms are gone
If you or someone in your family experiences complications from RSV, one of our many Medical City Healthcare emergency locations has you covered. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.
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