Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a very common virus that can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
While not a threat to most adults, RSV can lead to a serious lung infection called bronchiolitis in some children.
“When adults get RSV, they just get kind of a cold. They don’t typically get tested for it, and they usually don’t even go to the doctor,” said Haroon Ali, MD. As a pediatric hospitalist at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois, Dr. Ali has treated many children with severe RSV infections.
Why children are different
Children respond differently to illnesses like RSV.
“They have a younger immune system that’s very reactive. They also have smaller airways all the way to the bottom of their lungs. When they get filled with mucus, they can get in a lot more trouble than adults do,” Dr. Ali said.
Any child younger than grade-school age could be at risk of complications from RSV, but in general, the highest risk is for those who are youngest.
Children under a year old are generally considered high-risk for complications from RSV, as are those with certain medical conditions including:
- Prematurity (born before 37 weeks gestation)
- Lung and heart problems
- A compromised immune system because of illness or medical treatment
Because RSV is caused by a virus, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Treatment instead is focused on alleviating symptoms and keeping children as comfortable as possible while their immune system fights off the virus.
Children who become infected with RSV might have cold-like symptoms. Many times, these symptoms will resolve without medical treatment, but some cases can escalate to a serious illness.
If your child has only mild symptoms, you can try to keep them comfortable at home. If your child has a fever, check with your pediatrician or family doctor about what medications you can safely use.
You can also use nasal suction (a saline spray or suction tool) to keep their nose and airways clear. This is especially important when they are sleeping and eating.
“But if you start to worry about your child breathing on their own, or if they seem like they are spending all their energy on breathing, that would be a worrisome symptom and reason to seek medical attention,” Dr. Ali said.
Chest retractions are a hallmark sign of difficulty breathing. If you can see the lines between your child’s ribs, a pronounced line between their ribs and stomach or a notch between their clavicles (collarbones), they should be seen by a medical provider as soon as possible.
“The most significant thing you can look out for in kids who are under 6 months old would be pauses in breathing. Fifteen to 20 seconds could be very worrisome, and you should seek medical attention immediately,” Dr. Ali said.
You should also be on the lookout for signs of dehydration: fewer than four wet diapers in a day or a significant decrease in how much your child is eating, drinking or urinating.
To prevent RSV:
- Keep hands clean, especially when you are caring for a very young infant.
- Keep young children away from others (adults or children) who show signs of illness. For children under 2 months old, even mild illnesses like colds or sniffles could be dangerous.
- Don’t send your child to daycare if they are sick. Children can safely go to daycare once their symptoms are improving and they do not have a fever.