What Parents Need To Know About Respiratory Syncytial Virus

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Shanisty Ireland

For most of us, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) just looks like a bad cold. But for babies and young children, it can result in some very serious and scary symptoms.

In fact, as Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease expert and professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine tells Scary Mommy, RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization in babies, with 75,000-125,000 children under two being hospitalized each year in the U.S. as a result of the nasty bug. RSV is also the second leading cause of death worldwide for babies under a year of age.

YIKES. This. Is. Terrifying.

I don’t know about you, but when my kids were little, I had never even heard of RSV. It was only when my son was diagnosed with it at 18 months – after becoming very short of breath during what I thought was a cold – that it came onto my radar. Thankfully, at-home care with oral steroids and bronchodilators was all that was needed in his case, but it was frightening nonetheless.

Since then, I have known quite a few babies who were hospitalized with RSV – one of whom was only a few days old. As Dr. Schaffner tells me, babies are the ones most vulnerable to RSV because their immune systems aren’t as strong as most older children or adults. Not only that, but their airways are shorter, resulting in more serious breathing issues as well as increasing their risk for pneumonia.

Experiencing a serious bout of RSV can be traumatizing, especially with a very young baby who needs to be hospitalized. Shanisty Ireland, a mom of three from Ohio, whose youngest was hospitalized with the virus when he was only five weeks old, calls the experience “the scariest five days of [her] life.”

Ireland, who wrote about the experience in a blog post titled, “RSV Changed The Way I Parent,” is sharing her story to raise awareness about the virus, and make sure that parents are informed of the risks and the important warning signs to watch out for.

As Ireland tells Scary Mommy, it all started after a nasty bug had made its way through her household, infecting both of her older children. Ireland remembers hoping her newborn, Adam, would be spared.

“I think I was a little naive, or perhaps sleep deprived from having a newborn and two very sick children, but I honestly thought Adam would be spared from sickness,” Ireland says. “Or, if he did get sick I was certain it would be a mild cold. We were taking all of the necessary precautions of hand washing and isolation…. but as any mother of young children knows, it’s hard to isolate siblings at that age.”

But alas, Adam came down with the virus. His symptoms were like those of a typical cold at the beginning, Ireland recalls. But after he started to run a fever and began vomiting up breastmilk, Ireland took him to the pediatrician. That’s when he tested positive for RSV.

What Ireland remembers more than anything is that she was not warned about how serious things could get with a virus like RSV – and that she wasn’t told at which point she would need to go to the ER or call 911.

“I will never forget sitting in the exam room when a nurse came in and said to me, ‘Mrs. Ireland, your baby has RSV. Take him home and watch him.’ I was frustrated with the lack of clarity and I was exhausted so I did as I was advised,” Ireland says.

That night, Adam just got worse and worse. Ireland took a 15-second video of his breathing and sent it to her sister-in-law, a pediatric nurse practitioner. “She took one look at his breathing and suggested I rush him to [the hospital],” Ireland says.

Ireland decided to share that video, below, to educate parents on what to look for in terms of labored breathing.

Courtesy of Shanisty Ireland

The good news is that Adam was fine, but that was only after spending 5 days on a ventilator and IVs. In addition, Ireland says, he had “breathing treatments, and chest x-rays and antibiotics.”

Again, above all, Ireland feels strongly that she should have been prepped for how serious the virus often is, and been made aware of what warning signs to look out for. She even feels that if she’d acted sooner, she may have been spared the traumatic experience of having to hospitalize her little one.

“I feel as though I should have been educated at the pediatrician’s office when he was diagnosed,” says Ireland. “Even before that, I believe pregnant mothers who are due during RSV/cold and flu season should be alerted of the dangers of RSV. I wish I would have known the warning signs sooner… it could have saved us that trip to the ER and extended hospital stay.”

So what is the progression of the disease, and when should parents be worried? Dr. Schaffner broke it down for us:

Initial symptoms

At first, RSV may look exactly like a cold. Dr. Schaffner explains: “The illness begins with abundant clear nasal discharge which becomes thicker over time.”

More serious symptoms

Within a few days, the more concerning symptoms set in. Dr. Schaffner says that all parents need to watch out for coughing, poor feeding, and irritability. Be especially alert to any breathing issues, he says, including “a frightening shortness of breath, rapid and labored breathing which can be accompanied by grunting and wheezing.”

Do all babies with RSV have fevers?

We think of serious illness as ones that are accompanied by fevers, but that’s where RSV can be deceiving. “Only about half the babies have a fever which can be deceptive, leading parents to think this might not be an infection,” says Dr. Schaffner.

When to go to the ER?

While a drippy nose may not prompt a doctor’s visit, any of the most serious symptoms listed above should prompt a visit to your doctor or the nearest ER, says Dr. Schaffner.

Besides making sure to take any concerns about your baby’s wellbeing or breathing as seriously as possible, and to educate yourself about the dangers of RSV, Ireland’s top advice is to use a little common sense around babies and small children.

“If you or your family is going to come in contact with a newborn and you are showing any signs of a cold… please stay away,” says Ireland. “What appears to be a common cold for a child or adult can be deadly for a newborn.”

Bottom line: if your baby is diagnosed with RSV, be on high alert. And diagnosed or not, if your baby is listless or is having any trouble breathing, head to the emergency room or urgent care ASAP.

Also: wash your freaking hands. And by God, if you have even a tickle of a cold, stay the hell away from babies and young children. Please. JUST DO IT. It’s never worth the risk.

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