Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages, is a major cause of respiratory illness in young children.
In adults, it may only produce symptoms of a common cold, such as a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, mild headache, cough, fever, and a general feeling of being ill. But in premature babies and kids with diseases that affect the lungs, heart, or immune system, RSV infections can lead to other more serious illnesses.
RSV is highly contagious and can be spread through droplets containing the virus when someone coughs or sneezes. It also can live on surfaces (such as countertops or doorknobs) and on hands and clothing, so it can be easily spread when a person touches something contaminated.
RSV can spread rapidly through schools and childcare centers. Babies often get it when older kids carry the virus home from school and pass it to them. Almost all kids are infected with RSV at least once by the time they're 2 years old.
RSV infections often occur in epidemics that last from late fall through early spring. Respiratory illness caused by RSV — such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia — usually lasts about a week, but some cases may last several weeks.
Doctors typically diagnose RSV by taking a medical history and doing a physical exam. Generally, in healthy kids it's not necessary to distinguish RSV from a common cold. But if a child has other health conditions, a doctor might want to make a specific diagnosis; in that case, RSV is identified in nasal secretions collected either with a cotton swab or by suction through a bulb syringe.
Because RSV can be easily spread by touching infected people or surfaces, frequent hand washing is key in preventing its transmission. Try to wash your hands after having any contact with someone who has cold symptoms. And keep your school-age child with a cold away from younger siblings — particularly infants — until the symptoms pass.
To prevent serious RSV-related respiratory disease, at-risk infants can be given a monthly injection of a medication consisting of RSV antibodies during peak RSV season (roughly November to April). Because its protection is short-lived, it has to be given in subsequent years until the child is no longer at high risk for severe RSV infection. Ask the doctor if your child is considered high risk.
Fortunately, most cases of RSV are mild and require no specific treatment from doctors. Antibiotics aren't used because RSV is a virus and antibiotics are only effective against bacteria. Medication may sometimes be given to help open airways.
In an infant, however, an RSV infection can be more serious and may require hospitalization so that the baby can be watched closely. He or she may require fluids and possibly treatment for breathing problems.
At home, make a child with an RSV infection as comfortable as possible, allow time for recovery, and provide plenty of fluids. The last part can be tricky, however, because babies may not feel like drinking. In that case, offer fluids in small amounts at more frequent intervals than usual.
To help your child breathe easier, use a cool-mist vaporizer during the winter months to keep the air moist — winter air can dry out airways and make the mucus stickier. Avoid hot-water and steam humidifiers, which can be hazardous and can cause scalding. If you use a cool-mist humidifier, clean it daily with household bleach to discourage mold.
If your child is uncomfortable and too young to blow his or her own nose, use a nasal aspirator (or bulb syringe) to remove sticky nasal fluids.
Treat fever using a nonaspirin fever medicine like acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used in children with viral illnesses, as such use has been associated with Reye syndrome, a life-threatening illness.
Call the doctor if your child has any of these symptoms:
In infants, besides the symptoms already mentioned, call the doctor if your baby is unusually irritable or inactive, or refuses to breastfeed or bottle-feed.
Seek immediate medical help if you feel your child is having difficulty breathing or is breathing very rapidly, is lethargic, or if his or her lips or fingernails appear blue.
Reviewed by: Catherine L. Lamprecht, MD
Date reviewed: September 2012
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.|
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|Sinusitis Sinus infections, or sinusitis, are common and easily treated.|
|Pneumonia Pneumonia is a lung infection that can be caused by different types of germs, most commonly viruses. Read about the characteristics of various types of pneumonia.|
|Is It a Cold or the Flu? Your child is sent home from school with a sore throat, cough, and high fever - could it be the flu that's been going around? Or is it just a common cold? Find out here!|
|Bronchiolitis Bronchiolitis is a common illness of the respiratory tract caused by an infection that affects tiny airways - the bronchioles - that lead to the lungs.|
|Coughing Coughs are a common symptom, but most aren't a sign of a serious condition. Learn about different coughs, how to help your child feel better, and when to call your doctor.|
|Why Is Hand Washing So Important? Did you know that proper hand washing is the best way to keep from getting sick? Here's how to teach this all-important habit to your kids.|
|Common Cold With kids getting up to eight colds a year, this contagious viral infection is the most common infectious disease in the United States and the top reason kids visit the doctor and miss school.|
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