RSV in Infants

Susie McGee

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus and affects nearly all children before they reach the age of three. While you might be surprised to read that, most of the time, RSV is indistinguishable from the common cold. However for infants younger than six months, the disease can be serious and even deadly.

What Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

RSV is an airborne virus that can cause lower respiratory illness in infants and young children. It can also affect older children and even adults, however. RSV in infants is more prevalent in the winter months, and according to the Center for Disease Control, it is the leading cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis in babies. For high risk children and premature infants, RSV can be life threatening.


The symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus will vary according to the severity of the virus. Common symptoms for mild cases of RSV actually resemble the common cold, however those with weakened immune systems may actually develop pneumonia from contracting the disease. Unlike a cold, however, RSV may cause a child to exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Listlessness
  • Poor appetite
  • Deep coughing

Severe breathing problems may cause an infant or other infected person to be hospitalized.


While milder cases of RSV will usually run their course without prescribed antivirus drugs, more serious cases will need to be treated. According to Kids' Health, the highest rate of RSV occurs in infants between the ages of two to six months. The incubation period generally lasts from four to six days, and the infection can last a week or longer.

  • Give your child plenty of fluids. If your infant is younger than six months, don't give her fruit juices. Try to breastfeed or bottle feed her more frequently, though.
  • If necessary, loosen any mucus in the nose with saline drops.
  • Use a bulb syringe to suction out excess mucus.
  • Treat fever with a non-aspirin fever-reducing medication.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to keep moisture in the air.

Prevention of RSV

RSV is highly contagious. For prevention, consider the following points:

  • Babies who are infected and attend day care need to stay home until the incubation period has passed.
  • Frequent hand washing is another important preventative measure.

For infants and others who have weakened immune systems and may be at a higher risk of contracting RSV, treatment may include the following:

  • Palivizumab is a monthly, intramuscular injection. While its protection is short-lived, if it is given in the fall months, it can offer extra protection through the winter.

Calling Your Pediatrician

When to call your pediatrician depends on your baby's age and the severity of her symptoms.

  • For infants younger than three months, call the doctor for fevers of 101 or higher.
  • Call your doctor if you notice a thick, yellow, gray, or green nasal discharge.
  • Call your doctor if your child's cough lasts longer than four days.
  • Call your doctor if your child's cough produces yellow, gray, or green mucus.
  • Call your doctor if your child has problems breathing, and/or her lips turn gray or blue in color.
  • As always, call your doctor with any other questions or concerns that you might have.
RSV in Infants