Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): What Parents Should Know



We are in the middle of cold and flu season. Hospitals and Emergency Rooms are full with patients suffering from the symptoms.  Adults and children commonly get colds. But bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the airways, can make younger children and babies very ill. Respiratory Syncytial Virus, something we know in hospitals as RSV is the most common cause of this type of inflammation.

So, parents are probably asking themselves, "What is RSV and what should I be doing to keep my kids from getting it?" Continue reading for tips from me and Jeffrey Bender, MD, attending physician in the Department of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospitla Los Angeles to help prevent, recognize and help your child if they suffer from RSV.

What is RSV?

RSV is a very hardy virus.  It can live on hard surfaces for many hours and is very contagious. In fact, almost all children will have been infected with RSV by the age of two. Babies, especially preemies and those with chronic lung disease (CLD), are more susceptible to RSV. Because ex-preemies, babies with CLD or some other medical problems can become very ill, they should be seen by their pediatrician when symptoms appear.

How does RSV differ from other cold viruses?

RSV comes from a different family of viruses than the common cold called paramyxoviridae. Like cold viruses, they can cause upper respiratory tract infections in people of all ages. By age 2, nearly all children have had at least one episode of RSV in the United States. 

How many hours can it live on surfaces?

As an enveloped virus, RSV can only stay on surfaces for a few hours. They primary method of spread is through close contact with infected individuals who can spread the virus for 3 to 8 days.

What are the symptoms of RSV

In the case your child does come down with RSV, despite all prevention methods, most sick kids will only show symptoms such as:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough

Very young infants may have a decrease in activity or seem like they are not interested in playing, may show little interest in feeding and have a fever.

If your child is experiencing difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical attention. Breathing faster than normal, nostrils flaring and retracting when breathing, or if your child is using the muscles of his or her ribs to help with breathing are all signs that your child should be seen by their pediatrician right away.  Any time your child's skin has a grey or bluish tint, you should call 911.

Who is at risk for RSV?

RSV causes the most significant disease in these infants and young children who are smaller and less able to clear the mucus and secretions associated with the infection. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a list of risk factors for infants and children who are especially susceptible to RSV. If you are concerned that your infant or child is at risk for contracting RSV, contact your child’s physician.

How busy is the ER with RSV cases each year?

Very. Nationwide pediatric emergency centers gear up for RSV season.

What do parents need to know about RSV?

All children get runny noses and cough in the winter, but all kids do not necessarily need to be seen by a medical provider. If it looks like they are having trouble breathing or feeding, they need to evaluated by a physician. Good hand hygiene and avoiding unnecessary crowded spaces goes a long way towards protecting infants from RSV.

Is treatment available for RSV?

There is no cure for RSV, as there is no cure for the common cold.  If your child needs to be hospitalized he/she may need oxygen and their airway may be suctioned to remove the mucous. Your child may also need intravenous (IV) fluids. During treatment, RSV needs to run its course and your child’s stay in the hospital could range from overnight to several weeks, if severe.

RSV prophylaxis

There is no vaccine for RSV, but there is prophylaxis for those babies and toddlers who meet criteria to receive it. Talk to your pediatrician about RSV prophylaxis.  Prevention is the best medicine for RSV, and the best way to prevent it is to keep anyone with cold or flu symptoms away from your baby and good hygiene.

Simple ways to prevent RSV 

Because it's so easily spread, hygiene is a crucial factor regarding prevention. Keep anyone sick with cold or flu symptoms away from your baby and young toddler. Take reasonable measures to try and keep people with runny noses from your youngster.

The key to keeping your family healthy is good hygiene habits. Set an example for your children by washing your hands thoroughly and frequently and encourage them to do the same. Ever notice the hand wipes at the grocery store entrance? Use them!  Always keep hand sanitizer in your bag or car.

Wash your hands!

Not only is it important to wash your hands, there's actually a proper technique. The Center for Disease Control recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Not sure how long that is? Try humming the "Happy Birthday Song" the next time you're getting soapy, click here. My fellow nurse blogger, Cheryl Franco, created this great video to show proper hand washing! The Centers for Disease Prevention and control also have great information about hand washing technique and illness prevention.

Clean your child’s toys by wiping them down regularly with sanitizing wipes. Try to keep the toys inside your home. Other surfaces that are important to keep clean include door knobs, counters and faucets.

Integrate hand washing and using sanitizing wipes into your family's routine and soon it will become second nature.

For additional information on RSV, visit the Allergy and Asthma Network.

Please Share!

We don’t want to see your child in our emergency room this winter with RSV. Although RSV can seem impossible to avoid, especially for families with children, it's important for parents to know some steps they can take on their own to try and reduce their family's risk of infection.  Please share this post to help spread the word about RSV prevention!

Fall and winter are not the only times your child could get RSV. Ever have a "summer cold?"  Precautions should be used year round to keep you and your family healthy.