What every parent should know about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Children and babies are especially vulnerable to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which has symptoms similar to a bad cold, making it tough for parents to determine when to contact their doctor. RSV can lead to more serious problems like pneumonia, so it is important to know the difference.

“RSV is a problem that occurs throughout our community and during this time of year can cause a surge in patients admitted to pediatric intensive care units,” said Michael C. Smith, MD, vice chairman of pediatrics at Scott & White Healthcare. Babies younger than six months and those born prematurely are more likely to have problems with RSV.

The RSV season typically lasts from November to April.

What is RSV?

Like a cold, RSV is spread by droplets from an infected person. According to Dr. Smith, RSV usually causes the same symptoms as a cold, including:

  • cough
  • stuffy or running nose
  • mild sore throat
  • earache
  • fever

Babies with RSV may also:

  • Have no energy
  • Act fussy or cranky
  • Be less hungry than usual

If a child begins wheezing or has trouble breathing, Dr. Smith advises parents to call their doctor.

If your child has RSV:

  • Prop up your child’s head to make it easier to breathe and sleep.
  • Suction your baby’s nose if he or she can’t breathe well enough to eat or sleep.
  • Control fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Never give aspirin to someone younger than 20 years, because it can cause Reye syndrome.

How do I protect myself and my family from RSV?


“It’s difficult to keep from catching RSV, just like it’s hard to keep from catching a cold,” said Dr. Smith. “But you can lower the chances by practicing good health habits like washing your hands often, and teaching children to do the same.” See that your child gets all the vaccines your doctor recommends. Medication to prevent RSV may be given to babies and children who are more likely to have problems with the infection. And, while these medications may not completely prevent RSV, they can keep symptoms from getting worse.

Dr. Smith says that “while it’s impossible to completely prevent the infection from occurring, parents can reduce their child’s chances of infection by:”

  • Frequent handwashing, especially before holding your child. RSV is unstable in the environment and survives only a few hours on environmental surfaces. The virus is readily inactivated with soap and water and disinfectants.
  • Never sharing personal items such as cups, pacifiers, towels, etc.
  • Frequent washing of clothes, bedding, toys, and play areas.
  • Keeping babies away from people who have colds or the flu, and avoiding crowds during peak RSV season.
  • Never allowing people to smoke around your baby.

“In light of the H1N1 pandemic, the good news is that people are more aware of the importance of hand-washing, and disease prevention and because of this, it may be protecting us from RSV as well,” said Dr. Smith.

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What every parent should know about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)