RSV in Infants

baby boy with fever

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly all children will be infected with the virus by their second birthday. 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 virus can be serious and even deadly.

What Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

RSV is a highly contagious virus that causes lower respiratory illness. It is readily spread through direct contact with secretions from the nose or mouth. The virus is most contagious during the first two to four days of infection and is most prevalent during the winter months and in the early spring.

RSV Symptoms

The symptoms of the respiratory syncytial virus will usually mimic those of an upper respiratory infection.

Early symptoms of the virus include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decreased appetite
  • A cough that may progress to wheezing

Other symptoms may include:

  • Fever (temperature greater than 100 F)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Deep breathing
  • Blue-colored lips or fingernails

In infants less than 6 months old there may be few obvious signs of illness. Generally, young infants will display the following symptoms of infection:

  • Poor feeding
  • Irritability
  • Decreased activity level
  • Pauses while breathing, particularly during sleep.

A young child with RSV will usually experience mild cold symptoms but the virus can manifest into more serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one to two percent of children with the virus, under the age of 6 months, may need to be hospitalized. During a hospital stay your child may require oxygen therapy, intubation, and/or mechanical ventilation to help them breathe. Most children improve with care and are sent home within a few days.

Calling Your Healthcare Provider

Early identification and care are key to preventing the infection from getting worse. Contact your pediatrician immediately if your baby:

  • Has difficulty breathing
  • Is less than 3 months old and has a fever
  • Is exhibiting signs of dehydration that include dry mouth, crying without tears, and urinating less often

If your infant is less than 6 months of age, and he is less active than normal, refuses to feed or is more irritable than usual, you should call your pediatrician right away. Call 9-1-1 if your child is having difficulty breathing, is breathing very rapidly, is lethargic, or if his lips or fingernails are a bluish color.

Treatment and Care

Cleveland Clinic reports it may take between two and eight days before virus symptoms appear but the symptoms may remain present for up to three weeks. There are several supportive therapies that can be implemented to help your loved ones with a mild case of RSV feel better:

  • Give your child plenty of fluids such as breast milk or formula.
  • Use saline drops to loosen mucus in his nose.
  • Use a syringe bulb to suction excess mucus.
  • Use acetaminophen (Tylenol) to treat fevers. Never give your child aspirin.
  • Moisten the air using a cool-mist vaporizer.

Prevention of RSV

You can do your part to prevent the spread of the RSV virus. CDC encourages you to do the following to help protect your baby:

  • Keep your infected baby at home until the incubation period has passed.
  • Wash your hands often to stop the spread of germs.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.

Children at higher risk for the viral infection such as newborn infants, premature babies, or children with certain heart or lung diseases may be prescribed Palivizumab, a monthly, injection that can offer extra protection throughout the RSV season. An initial dose of the vaccine is given before the RSV season, followed by one dose of the vaccine every 28 to 30 days throughout the season. Speak with your provider about the medication, how many immunizations your child will need, and the vaccine schedule.

Symptom Free

The cold winter months can be harsh on your baby's immune system. Early recognition of the signs and symptoms of the RSV virus can ensure your child has the best possible health outcomes.

RSV in Infants