General Health

It's RSV season: how to protect your little ones

Mary Beth Hulin, MD
It's RSV season: how to protect your little ones

Let’s talk RSV. December to February is peak RSV season for kids. We’re here to tell you more about this nasty virus, and how you can protect your children from coming down with it.

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV is a viral illness that causes symptoms such as runny nose, cough, and trouble breathing. It’s the most common cause of inflammation of the small airways in the lungs (bronchiolitis) and pneumonia in babies.

What causes RSV in children?

RSV is spread when kids come in contact with fluid from an infected person’s nose or mouth. This can happen if a child touches a contaminated surface and touches his or her eyes, mouth, or nose, which, let’s face it, can be pretty common with kids in school. Fluid contact can also happen when inhaling droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough.

Which children are at risk for RSV?

A child is more at risk for RSV if he or she is around other people with the virus. RSV often occurs in yearly outbreaks in communities, classrooms, and childcare centers, so if your child is diagnosed with RSV, keep them home. RSV is more common in winter and early spring months.

RSV can affect a person of any age but causes the most problems for the very young and very old. Most babies have been infected at least once by the time they are two years old. Babies can also be re-infected with the virus anytime. Infection in older children and adults may have similar symptoms to an ordinary cold, but for a young baby it can be more like an episode of severe asthma. Babies born prematurely or with heart, lung, or immune system diseases are at increased risk for more severe illness.

The signs and symptoms of RSV

Symptoms start about two to five days after contact with the virus.

The early phase of RSV in babies and young children is often mild, like a cold. In children younger than three years old, the illness may move into the lungs and cause coughing and wheezing. In some children, the infection can turn into a severe respiratory disease. Your child may need to be treated in the hospital to help with breathing.

The most common symptoms of RSV include:

  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Short periods without breathing (apnea)
  • Trouble eating, drinking, or swallowing
  • Wheezing
  • Flaring of the nostrils or straining of the chest or stomach while breathing
  • Breathing faster than usual, or trouble breathing
  • Turning blue around the lips and fingertips

The symptoms of RSV can seem like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How we treat RSV

Treatments depend on your child’s symptoms, age, general health, and how severe the condition is.

Antibiotics are not used to treat RSV. Treatment for RSV is done to help ease symptoms.

Treatments include:

  • Lots of fluids: It's very important to make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids. In severe cases, a child may need an intravenous (IV) line to give fluids and electrolytes.
  • Oxygen: Some children may need help getting enough oxygen. Extra oxygen can be given through a mask, nasal prongs, or an oxygen tent.
  • Suctioning of mucus: Either at home, with a nasal suction bulb, or at the hospital, with a thin tube inserted into the nose, removing extra mucus can help your child breathe more comfortably.
  • Bronchodilator medicines: These may be used to open your child's airways. They are often given in an aerosol mist by a mask or through an inhaler.
  • Tube feeding: In more severe instances, this may be done if a baby has trouble sucking. A thin tube is put through the baby’s nose and down into the stomach, where it can deliver liquid nutrition.
  • Mechanical ventilation: A child who is very ill may need to be put on a breathing machine (ventilator) to help with breathing.
  • Antivirals: Some children with severe infections may need treatment with an antiviral medicines.

What we can do to combat RSV?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies at high risk for RSV, such as premature infants or babies with chronic heart or lung problems get a medicine called palivizumab. Ask your pediatrician if your child is at high risk for RSV.

To reduce the risk for RSV, the AAP recommends all babies, especially preterm infants:

  • Be breastfed
  • Be protected from contact with smoke
  • Limit exposure to childcare with lots of children during their first winter season
  • Avoid contact with sick people
  • Also make sure that household members wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner before and after touching a baby with RSV.

By taking these precautions, you can help protect your little ones, and others from contracting RSV. We at Children’s Hospital wish you a happy and healthy holiday season!

Mary Beth Hulin, MD, PhD
Dr. Mary Beth Hulin takes great pride in serving her community at the Children’s Pediatrics River Ridge clinic. She earned her medical degree and graduate degree in Pharmacology at LSU Health New Orleans and completed her pediatric residency training at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. Dr. Hulin discovered a love for pediatric care as a medical student, and considers it an honor and privilege to be trusted with the care of people’s children. She has a particular passion for breastfeeding support and education, but enjoys all aspects of general pediatrics care.