What is RSV?
Respiratory syncytial virus, often referred to as RSV, is a common virus that can cause infections of the nose, throat, lungs, and respiratory tract. Historically, almost all children become infected with RSV by age 2, and reinfections are common at all ages.
RSV is a leading cause of hospitalization in infants. As of November 2022, cases of RSV and other respiratory illnesses — such as enterovirus, rhinovirus, and parainfluenza — are on the rise across the United States, causing many pediatric hospitals to operate at full capacity. If your child needs emergency care, it can be helpful to check your local hospital’s waiting times as you consider your options for care.
Why is RSV so bad this year?
RSV infections declined significantly during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the wearing of masks and social distancing measures, young children were not exposed to common germs during this time.
As more people return to schools and other public places without masks, germs and viruses are spreading in general. However, with less built up immunity, children are more vulnerable than normal.
People can catch RSV more than once, but the first time a child has an RSV infection, they are usually much sicker than the next time. Due to COVID-19 prevention measures, we have one and two year olds getting their first RSV infection right now.
This makes it all the more important to pay attention to the health of your child as well as the people around them.
What are the common symptoms of RSV in infants and children?
Common symptoms of RSV include:
- Running nose
- Decreased appetite
- Cough and wheezing
Most people will experience only mild symptoms and recover after one to two weeks. However, symptoms can be more severe for high-risk individuals, including:
- Very young children
- Older adults
- Anyone with chronic health problems
For premature babies, infants 6 months of age or younger, and children with weakened immune systems, RSV infection can cause severe illness, including bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
Symptoms of RSV in infants younger than 6 months may include:
- Loss of appetite and activity
- Shortness of breath
How is RSV different from COVID-19, a cold or the flu?
The symptoms of RSV can be similar to those of other contagious respiratory viruses. An RSV infection can often look very similar to a common cold, in particular. RSV infection can come in stages, so be on the lookout for worsening symptoms. This is a sign that you should contact a health care provider.
How is RSV spread?
The virus is highly contagious and can spread in a variety of ways, including:
droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough come in contact with your eyes, nose, or mouth
touching a surface (such as a counter) that may be contaminated with the virus
having direct contact with the virus (such as kissing a loved one who has RSV).
What can you do to prevent spreading RSV?
Thankfully, there are many important steps you can take to reduce the spread of RSV.
You can avoid spreading RSV if you:
- Practice proper hand hygiene and wash your hands regularly.
- Stay home if you have symptoms and avoid close contact with others if either of you is infected.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes and dispose of used tissue immediately.
- Disinfect hard surfaces that are used frequently, especially if they were touched by someone who is feeling sick.
- Avoid touching your face.
How is RSV treated?
Like many other respiratory viruses, there is no specific treatment for managing the symptoms of RSV infection. Over-the-counter fever and pain medicine may be suitable for mild symptoms, but make sure the product is safe for children before giving it to your child. Your child’s doctor can help identify safe drugs and doses. It is also important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
If symptoms seem to get worse, your child’s healthcare provider can discuss appropriate treatment. Children, especially young infants, may need to be hospitalized while they receive oxygen support and/or intravenous fluids to stay hydrated.
RSV symptoms usually go away after one to two weeks. Researchers are currently working on new drugs and vaccines to aid in the fight against the virus.