We’re in the middle of cold season, and many parents may be concerned that their baby or toddler isn’t just sneezing and wheezing due to the common cold, but that it might be respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
In rare cases, RSV can become severe in babies and young children and require hospitalization, leaving parents to wonder how to know which is which, and when should they take action?
RSV is extremely contagious and also common. It has symptoms similar to the common cold, shares the same season (late fall to early spring), and typically will go away on its own in one to two weeks. Both the common cold and RSV are caused by a virus, and symptoms include a scratchy or sore throat, sneezing, stuffy nose, watery eyes, cough, fever and mucus in the nose or throat.
RSV and colds are spread through the air, as well as through touch. Thus, kids playing with the same toys at daycare are easily infected. Infants with school-age brothers or sisters are also more prone to get RSV.
For most babies and young children with RSV, supportive care treatment at home is enough. There is no medication to treat either RSV or the cold.
However, to help make your children more comfortable, you can remove sticky nasal fluids with a bulb syringe using saline drops, use a cool-mist vaporizer in their room to keep the air moist, offer plenty of fluids, and use non-aspirin fever reducers. Sitting an infant upright may also make breathing easier.
For a small percentage of babies and toddlers, RSV, unlike the common cold, can lead to a more serious problem called bronchiolitis — inflammation of the small airways of the lungs — or even pneumonia. In children younger than 1, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Out of 1,000 people, 5 to 20 will require hospitalization, with those younger than 6 months old making up the majority of these cases.
Those most at risk for RSV include premature babies, children younger than 2 years old born with a heart or lung disease, infants or young children with weakened immune systems, and babies 8 to 10 weeks old.
Babies with more serious cases of RSV may need to be treated at the hospital, with treatment including oxygen, IV fluids, suctioning of nasal secretions, medications to open airways and, in some cases, a ventilator. In most cases, hospitalization only lasts a few days. Many hospitals and clinics can rapidly test for RSV using a fluid sample from the nose.
If your baby or young child is experiencing a fever or severe cough that seems to be getting worse, wheezing, rapid breathing or difficulty breathing, a bluish color of the skin or nail beds, is eating poorly, showing signs of dehydration or is acting unusually lethargic and irritable, seek immediate medical help, as your child may require RSV treatment.
Dr. Benjamin Rambicure is with Family Medicine, KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.