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The symptoms sound a lot like a common cold, but respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can cause severe illness in babies and toddlers.
RSV is a common infection that starts with cold-like symptoms that can worsen over time.
In healthy older children and adults, RSV usually only causes mild symptoms that can be managed at home with over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers.
Those at a higher risk of severe infection who get RSV — including infants, people with weakened immune systems, people with chronic heart or lung disease or neuromuscular disorders, and adults age 65 and older — may need to be hospitalized, depending on their symptoms.
In some children, RSV can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the small airway passages entering the lungs. Bronchiolitis can be caused by many different viruses, but RSV is a leading cause of the illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports virtually all children will have an RSV infection by the time they turn 2 years old.
The early signs of RSV include:
As the infection progresses, the cough may worsen and wheezing and/or difficulty breathing and a fever may develop.
Infants who are younger than 6 months old may only show symptoms such as:
Most children who have RSV do not require treatment by a doctor or a trip to the emergency room.
Take your child to the ER or call 911 if they stop breathing, turn blue around the lips or nail beds, if they’re showing signs of dehydration (including less frequent wet diapers or crying without tears), or if they’re having severe difficulty breathing, such as nostrils flaring (getting bigger), grunting, or looking like they are getting tired from working hard to breathe.
Call or visit your doctor if you hear wheezing, your child has problems eating or drinking, if they are younger than 3 months and have a fever more than 100.8 or if they have a persistent fever and are older than 3 months.
There is no vaccine for RSV or medication to treat the virus. Antibiotics do not work for RSV or other forms of viral bronchiolitis. There is a medication given to a very small number of premature infants or young children with severe heart or lung diseases that may prevent RSV, but it does not help treat the illness after symptoms have developed.
Most children and adults recover in one to two weeks, but some cases of bronchiolitis or RSV require a hospital stay for extra oxygen and supportive care such as frequent suctioning.
At home, you can make sure sick kids get enough fluids and suction their nostrils if needed with a suction bulb.
One of the best ways to protect your child from RSV and other illness is to take steps to prevent infection, such as:
This blog was reviewed by Deanna M. Behrens, MD, and Darlene Wozniak, RN.
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