When my son was eight months old, he came down with what we assumed was his first cold. For a couple of days, he had a runny nose, he was cranky and sleepy, and just a tiny bit feverish. On the third day, things took a turn for the terrifying. I went to wake Walker from a nap that seemed just a bit too long, and he could hardly wake up. I opened his onesie to try to rouse him, and I noticed his belly was retracting just under his ribs with every breath he took. His little nostrils were flaring when he breathed. I knew he needed help.
At his pediatrician’s request, I took him to a pediatric ER where they hooked him up to a nebulizer, pumped him full of steroids, and performed a test to confirm what they already knew. My baby boy’s first “cold” was actually Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV. He had pretty severe bronchiolitis. If we had waited until morning, he probably would have ended up in the hospital — or worse. I shudder when I think of it.
This time of year, parents hear a lot of warnings and stories like mine about RSV. If you’re not familiar with the illness, it can sound pretty scary.
RSV is one of the most common childhood illnesses. According to the CDC, “RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States.”
If you’re a parent, chances are pretty good that at least one of your children will pick it up along the way. Almost all children have had it by their second birthday. The great news is that most kids recover just fine.
But you should still be aware that RSV can be pretty serious in young babies and the immune-compromised. It can progress quickly from a cold to an emergency. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the virus and its symptoms before RSV strikes.
Since October is RSV Awareness Month, it’s a great time to learn the basics. Here are six important things parents need to know about RSV.
1. RSV is not always an emergency.
For most toddlers and older children, RSV shows up just like the common cold. You’ll probably never know what you’re looking at. Even very young babies can often recover without hospitalization. My little guy was better in a week or so. If your doctor says your baby has RSV, stay vigilant, follow doctor’s orders, and give them lots of fluids and extra snuggles. But don’t panic! It’s very likely your child will be fine in a week or two.
2. Babies under a year old are the most likely to require serious medical intervention.
For children under a year old, especially those who were born prematurely or have heart or lung problems, RSV can become a medical emergency. It’s important to keep an eye on your infants when they start showing symptoms like a runny nose, cough or fever, or if they seem a lot sleepier than normal. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your babies if an older sibling has a cold, because sometimes RSV shows up as irritability and decreased activity before the breathing difficulties start.
3. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the signs of RSV-related respiratory distress.
RSV is a common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies and young children. Both can make it harder for your child to breathe properly. Seek immediate medical care if your child shows any of the following symptoms:
– Retractions: when your baby’s abdomen draws in under the ribs or the skin at the base of their neck sinks in when they are trying to breathe
– Blue tone in the skin, especially around the lips
– Flaring of the nostrils when breathing
– Any changes in normal breathing, such as rapid breathing, grunting, or an unceasing dry cough, similar to throat clearing
4. RSV is usually contagious for about a week, and it can live on hard surfaces.
Most people are contagious for 3-8 days, but “some infants, and people with weakened immune systems, can continue to spread the virus even after they stop showing symptoms, for as long as 4 weeks.” You can obviously contract RSV from direct contact with an infected person, but it can also live on tables, shopping carts, door handles, and highchairs.
To decrease the risk of spreading RSV to other people, it’s ideal to keep your child home for around a week. Especially when they are still coughing and sneezing, it’s very easy to leave the virus everywhere you go. If staying in is not feasible, avoid places with a lot of babies or immune-compromised individuals. The elderly can be at high risk for hospitalization with RSV too.
It’s not possible or recommended to attempt to completely sanitize your entire home, but it’s a good idea to frequently clean doorknobs, tables, and any other hard surface that your sick child might come in contact with during their illness. This can help prevent other family members from getting sick.
5. The best way to avoid contracting the virus is frequent hand washing!
Since RSV lives on hard surfaces, hand washing is your best defense against the virus.
Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as frequently as possible. Have your children wash their hands frequently when in public and upon arriving home. If your child is sick, and they absolutely must leave the house, make sure they wash their hands frequently to avoid leaving germs behind. Provide them with a package of tissues and teach them how to cover their mouths as early as possible.
Remember, hand sanitizer is a good option, too. It’s effective and portable, and lots of kids love using it.
6. Researchers are still working on an RSV vaccine.
We don’t yet have a widely available vaccine for RSV, but there is a drug available to help the most vulnerable populations. If you are pregnant, keep this information in mind. If your baby is very premature or has congenital heart or lung disease, a drug called palivizumab might be an option. It won’t stop your child from contracting RSV, but it could decrease the severity of the illness if it hits.
RSV can be serious for babies, immune-compromised individuals and the elderly. In a healthy child with a normal immune system, it can look like the common cold. If your child is sick, even if you think it’s “just a cold,” it’s important to remember it could be something more serious, like RSV. Do your best to limit spreading the illness.
During RSV season, hand washing and covering your mouth aren’t just courteous and prudent; they are practices that could keep someone else’s baby out of the hospital.