Respiratory synctial virus: Facts about RSV

Medical book showing RSV as a title

If you’re a parent of a young child, chances are you know about RSV – the virus which causes a lot of respiratory problems in young kids. Not a parent yet? You better get yourself acquainted with it. At some point, your child will likely get RSV.

I was able to catch up with Tessa Tovado, DO, a pediatrician who sees patients at the Banner Health Clinic in Fallon, NV. She gave me some useful details about RSV, which can help parents and parents to be.

What is RSV and how do you get it?

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is the virus that most commonly causes bronchiolitis, a lower-respiratory tract infection, in children and infants younger than 2, according to Dr. Tovado. She also said children older than two years typically won’t develop bronchiolitis, but can be infected with RSV.

“RSV infection is common in children older than two years,” said Tovado. “It usually causes symptoms similar to those of the common cold or mild wheezing.”

Dr. Tovado explained the virus spreads through respiratory droplets. So, when an infected person coughs or sneezes into the air or their hands, the virus is carried in the droplets and can survive on surfaces for several hours.

What are RSV’s symptoms?

When your little one gets bronchiolitis from RSV, there are some sure-fire warning signs.  “Bronchiolitis usually begins like a regular cold and starts off with a stuffy or runny nose, mild cough, a temperature higher than 100.4ºF and decreased appetite,” Dr. Tovado noted.

As bronchiolitis progresses, other symptoms can show up, including:

  • Breathing fast or having trouble breathing. In infants, the first sign can be a pause in breathing that lasts longer than 15 or 20 seconds.
  • Wheezing or a whistling sound when breathing (which usually lasts about 7 days)
  • A severe cough (which can last for 14 days or longer)
  • Trouble eating and drinking (because of the other symptoms)

How do you treat RSV?

Treating RSV focuses on the symptoms, according to Dr. Tovado. Parents may choose to give their child fever reducers, such as acetaminophen, and may want to use saline nasal drops with bulb suctioning for infants to help with congestion. Dr. Tovado pointed out that cough medicines, decongestants and sedatives are not recommended.

“Coughing is one way for the body to clear the lungs, and normally does not need to be treated,” said Dr. Tovado. “As the lungs heal, the coughing caused by the virus resolves.”

You’ll need to keep an eye on your child to make sure symptoms – such as difficulty breathing, decreased appetite and decreased urine output – do not get worse. In about 3 percent of bronchiolitis cases, the child will require monitoring and treatment in a hospital.

It’s also important to not allow smoking in the home or around the child because it can worsen a child’s cough. You may also find that keeping the child’s head elevated can make it a little easier for her to breathe.

We’ve all heard this tip before: make sure your child drinks enough fluids. “If the child completely refuses to eat or drink and is having fewer wet diapers, the parent should contact their child’s healthcare provider,” said Dr. Tovado

Bronchiolitis usually begins clearing up in 5 to 7 days, peaking around day 3. In some cases, though, wheezing may stick around for a week or longer, and it may take as long as 4 to 6 weeks for the child to return to his or her normal self, according to Dr. Tovado.

If the child seems to be worsening, parents should seek emergency medical attention. This is especially true for children who begin grunting, stop breathing or have blue-colored skin.

How can you avoid picking up RSV?

As is the case with so many other illnesses, good hand washing hygiene is the most effective way to prevent the spread of RSV. This is especially important prior to handling infants. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds using soap and warm water. You can also use hand sanitizers.

Also, remember to cough or sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand. This helps prevent spreading the virus to other surfaces.

“You should keep other children with bronchiolitis kept away from infants or individuals who are susceptible to severe respiratory illnesses,” said Dr. Tovado.

An ounce of precaution goes a long way.

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