There are lots of viruses going around this time of year. Some, like Influenza, have names and some don’t. One named virus that can create a lot of havoc is called RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). For older kids and adults it can presents as a bad cold that lasts 10-14 days. But, for kids less than 2 it can cause more serious illness.
RSV season typically starts in November, peaks in January and February and wanes in April.
RSV causes runny nose, cough, sneezing, fever, decrease in appetite, and in some cases wheezing. Kids less than 1 are more likely to have bronchiolitis (chesty cough with wheezing) or pneumonia. Babies less than 6 months are more likely to be hospitalized due to breathing problems RSV can cause.
How do I catch RSV?
RSV is spread by infected droplets when someone sneezes or coughs. You can get sick if those droplets get in your eyes, nose, or mouth. The virus can also live on surfaces such as doorknobs for hours.
People that have RSV are the most contagious the first few days of the infection. So, if you are around someone that has RSV make sure to wash your hands often. Try to stay away from others (which I realize is almost impossible if you are a mom!!). Avoid kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups and eating utensils.
Everybody gets RSV, it’s everywhere! Most of us get mild to moderate symptoms when we have it but certain people are more likely to get severe symptoms due to the virus. Premature infants, children younger than 2 and those with heart disease or chronic lung problems, and children with weakened immune systems are much more likely to have a rough time when they get RSV. Kids that are at high risk should avoid close contact with sick people during RSV season, wash there hands often, and limit the time spent in daycare if possible.
There is also a vaccine available called Synagis that is available for infants at high risk. It can help prevent RSV, but it can not cure or treat children that have the virus. Only infants who were quite premature or have serious heart conditions qualify for this vaccine though so most babies are going to have ride the wave of RSV.
What do I do if my child gets RSV?
For most children, especially those over 2 years, RSV will act like a common cold with cough and they will feel better in a week or two. Rest, fluids, and fever reduction are usually all that is needed. Tylenol or Motrin can be used to reduce the fever. It is important to have your child drink plenty of fluids so that they do not get dehydrated.
For younger infants or those with a tendency to wheeze with illness, RSV is more likely to cause noisy, wheezy breathing and cough. Some kids will sound like a cat purring or a long-term smoker when they have RSV. Signs that their cough is worrisome and needs attention include coughing so hard they are throwing up frequently, eating and drinking very poorly (most kids will not want to eat much but will still drink ok), or struggling to breathe by using their tummy muscles. Most young kids with RSV are ‘happy wheezers’ and are noisy and coughing but are eating and drinking pretty well and will weather the illness just fine. If your child is having a hard time breathing though, if you can’t control their fever, or you are concerned that they are getting dehydrated then they should be seen by your pediatrician or taken to the ER for severe symptoms.
Is there a test for RSV?
Yes, a swab of nasal secretions (snot) can be tested for RSV and we can know the results in a few minutes. Not every doctor’s office offers the test for RSV. Why? Because knowing that your child has RSV doesn’t change the outpatient care they will receive. Remember that for most kids, RSV only requires the standard supportive care that every cold requires. Since there is no specific treatment for RSV, knowing whether the cause of your child’s illness is RSV or any one of the other many winter viruses, we just help you manage the symptoms we see. RSV testing is typically only done when a child is requiring hospitalization for the purpose of keeping RSV positive kids away from medically fragile children.