By Frederick Kuo
As RSV cases continue to spike across parts of the U.S. — with some areas nearing seasonal peak levels — those typical “bugs” your child brings home may have you feeling on edge. With so much swirling around these days, it can be difficult to know what’s behind a constant cough, especially if your child is very young.
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can include symptoms similar to a common cold. However, the virus can develop into something more serious. RSV can infect people of all ages but is most severe for older adults and young children.
Usually almost every child under the age of 2 has been exposed to RSV, but due to all the pandemic response over the last few years, kids have not been exposed as much to RSV. That is one of the reasons why we are seeing such a spike this year, as well as RSV in children older than 2.
RSV symptoms may vary and typically begin four to six days after infection. The most common symptoms might include:
- Runny nose
- Low appetite
For young infants with RSV, they might be irritable, sluggish or find it harder to breathe.
Your pediatrician will be able to figure out whether it’s a common cold, COVID-19 or RSV, if you have concerns about symptoms your child is showing. They might perform tests, like chest X-rays, to see if pneumonia has developed.
When should you call a doctor?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes an increase in RSV-associated emergency room visits. However, most cases will go away on their own in a week or two. Symptoms are typically at their worst on days three to five of infection. Only 3% of children with RSV will require a hospital stay.
If symptoms become severe, contact your pediatrician right away. This may include:
- Symptoms of bronchiolitis
- Symptoms of dehydration (only one wet diaper in 8 hours or more)
- Difficulty breathing
- Gray or blue lips, tongue or skin
- A significant decrease in activity or alertness
Even though RSV is common, and it might seem difficult to figure out how severe it will become, there are some risk factors parents should be aware of.
- Children who are born premature or are 6 months old or younger are most at-risk for RSV complications
- Children with chronic heart or lung disease, or a weaker immune system, can also be susceptible to RSV
There’s currently no vaccine to prevent RSV and no specific treatment for the infection. As stated, most cases will resolve on their own. However, there are a few things you can do to help relieve the symptoms:
- Manage pain and fever with over-the-counter medications (consult your pediatrician for guidance and never give aspirin to children)
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Nasal salineto help with breathing
- Cool-mist humidifier to help break up mucus
Talk to your health care provider before you give any over-the-counter cold medicine to your child.
How it spreads
RSV is typically spread through coughs and sneezes, but can spread when someone touches a surface that has the virus on it and then touches their face, before washing their hands.
The following tips may help reduce your family’s risk:
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hands
- Avoid close contact with others, especially those who are sick
- Wash your hands frequently
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home
- If you’re sick, stay home
The best way to avoid transmission of RSV is what we have been doing very well over the last few years: Scrupulous hand hygiene with washing our hands frequently with soap and water, and cleaning the surfaces small hands get to, like doorknobs and handles. Also, wear a mask if you have any respiratory symptoms.
With the knowledge of what RSV may look like — and how it is different from other viruses — you’ll be able to take steps to keep your child as healthy as possible all year round.
For more information, visit the CDC website.
Dr. Frederick Kuo, MD, MBA, is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare, Northern California.
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