The combination of a fever, cough and shortness of breath typically conjures thoughts of the flu. However, these could also be symptoms of a lesser known, three-letter virus – RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. RSV, a major cause of respiratory illness and lung infections in children, is one of the most common reasons for hospital visits among infants and children. While most people recover from an RSV infection within one to two weeks, infection can be severe in older adults, premature babies and children with weak immune systems. This viral infection can lead to croup, ear infections, bronchiolitis, lung failure, pneumonia and, in severe infant cases, death. James E. Foy, DO, an osteopathic pediatrician from Vallejo, Calif., tells us the signs of an RSV infection and provides tips to prevent the spread of the virus in our households.
What are the common symptoms?
RSV can infect the lungs and breathing passages of infants, children, adolescents and adults. According to Dr. Foy, symptoms vary with age and differ in severity, from mild cold-like symptoms in older children and adults to severe complications in premature babies and kids with pre-existing diseases that affect the lungs, heart or immune system. Dr. Foy recommends that parents monitor their children closely for these RSV symptoms:
Bluish skin or nail color due to a lack of oxygen
Labored or rapid breathing
Coughing or wheezing
Fever or irritability
Refusal to feed, or persistent vomiting
Strained breathing, high fever, thick nasal discharge, and a worsening cough that produces yellow, green, or gray mucus are all signs of a worsening or severe illness. “RSV symptoms can lead to more serious illnesses, such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis. Call your doctor immediately if symptoms escalate,” advises Dr. Foy.
In an infant, an RSV infection can be more serious and may require hospitalization; in severe cases RSV infection can cause death. “Parents of newborns will need to be astute observers,” Dr. Foy says. “Keep an eye on your baby’s behavior, watch for changes in breathing patterns, unusual irritability or reduced activity, or a sudden refusal to breastfeed or bottle-feed. Consulting a physician in the early stages of the illness is the key to preventing serious complications.”
RSV Diagnosis and Treatment
“When you visit your physician with any of these symptoms, he or she will evaluate your child by reviewing your child’s medical history, performing a physical exam, and by doing blood tests, nasal secretion tests or a chest x-ray if needed,” explains Dr. Foy. “Respiratory illness caused by RSV typically lasts about a week or several weeks in some cases. Sometimes medication may be given to help open airways; however, most of the time the only treatment required for mild cases is fluids and rest,” he points out.
For parents of children diagnosed with an RSV infection, Dr. Foy prescribes the following treatment:
Provide plenty of fluids. For babies, offer fluids in small amounts at more frequent intervals.
Use a nasal aspirator (or bulb syringe) to remove sticky nasal fluids in infants if they are having problems taking fluids.
Treat fever using a non-aspirin fever medicine like acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used in children with viral illnesses.
How to Prevent the Spread of RSV
Almost all kids are infected with RSV at least once by the time they are two years old. The virus can live on hands for around a half an hour and on clothing and surfaces for a couple hours. Due to the contagious nature of this virus, droplets containing the virus can be spread with a touch, cough or sneeze. RSV often spreads rapidly through schools, day care centers, and, oftentimes, older kids infect their younger siblings when they carry the virus home from school.
To avoid mini-outbreaks and transmission of the virus, Dr. Foy stresses washing your hands immediately after being in contact with someone who has cold symptoms. He also advises parents to keep sick, school-age children away from younger siblings, particularly infants, until their symptoms pass.
“The best way to stop a viral infection in its tracks is to wash your hands, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and, most of all, stay home if you’re sick,” says Dr. Foy. To reduce the risk for infants, he recommends telling people to wash or sanitize their hands before handling them. “Even though they might be offended, this precaution can keep your baby healthy.”