A doctor wearing a blue latex glove holding a tube of blood labeled RSV Test.
RSV is a virus that causes a cough, sneezing and runny nose, but infants and babies are at risk for complications, such as pneumonia.

Understanding the Risks of Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common infectious disease. Most people experience mild cold-like symptoms and do not require treatment, making a full recovery within one to two weeks. However, some people may develop more serious complications and require hospitalization. Those most at risk of severe RSV are older adults and babies.

This article explains all about RSV in babies, the most common symptoms and what parents can do to prevent it.

What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus in Babies?

RSV is extremely common and most children will get it before the age of two. It does not usually cause severe symptoms but can occasionally lead to complications, including bronchiolitis, pneumonia, or worsening of asthma. An estimated 58,000 children under 5 are hospitalized due to RSV in the U.S. each year.

Those most at risk of complications include:

  • Preterm babies (born before 36 weeks).
  • Babies under 6 months.
  • Infants under 2 years with lung or heart disease.
  • Babies and children with impaired immunity.
  • Babies and children with neuromuscular disorders that affect swallowing or mucus clearance.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus Symptoms

The early symptoms of RSV usually appear within four to six days of infection and may include:

  • Runny nose.
  • Sneezing.
  • Cough.
  • Wheezing.
  • Reduced appetite.
  • Low-grade fever.

Not all of these symptoms will occur at the same time and very young infants may simply appear irritable and fatigued. In some cases, RSV can cause shallow, short and rapid breathing or pauses in the breath (apnea).

Most of these symptoms can be managed with over-the-counter remedies, such as acetaminophen. However, it is important to only use products that are formulated for children. A trained pharmacist will be able to offer advice on the most suitable options.

In some cases, RSV can develop into more serious issues, like bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Therefore, it is important to seek medical attention if any of the following symptoms occur:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • A bluish tinge to the lips and skin (cyanosis).
  • Yellow, green, or grey mucus.
  • Extreme tiredness.
  • Refusing feed or fluids.
  • Signs of dehydration (no urination for more than six hours, crying without tears).
  • Worsening of symptoms.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus Prevention Methods for Parents

There are several steps that parents can take to reduce their child’s risk of becoming ill. It is particularly important to follow this guidance from fall to late spring, when RSV infection rates are at their highest.

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1. Regular Handwashing

Handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent RSV and other infections from spreading. Use soap and warm water to wash the hands for 20 seconds at regular intervals throughout the day.

It is especially important to wash the hands after being out in public or touching potentially contaminated surfaces. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead.

Teach children about the importance of handwashing too and help young children wash their hands when necessary.

You may also wish to ask people to wash their hands before touching your baby, especially if they are in a high-risk group.

2. Avoid Touching the Face

RSV enters the body through the eyes, nose and mouth. If you need to touch your own or your baby’s face, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water first.

3. Cover Coughs and Sneezes

Coughing and sneezing spreads infectious droplets through the air. Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue or upper shirt sleeve (not your hand) can help to reduce transmission of the virus.
Put used tissues in a closed bin and wash your hands afterwards.

4. Disinfect Surfaces

The virus that causes RSV can linger on surfaces, increasing the risk of infections. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces like countertops, doorknobs, crib rails, toys and mobile devices regularly.

5. Reduce Exposure

Reduce your baby’s exposure to RSV by limiting their contact with other people, especially those who are sick. People with RSV are most infectious within the first week of illness. However, high-risk babies could catch the virus from someone for up to four weeks.

Keep the amount of time spent in crowded or public places to a minimum and avoid sharing cups or eating utensils at home.

6. Consider Preventative Medication

High-risk babies and infants can be treated with a preventative medicine called palivizumab. It is an injection that must be administered once a month through the fall, winter and spring.

Palivizumab has been shown to reduce the incidence of hospitalization and duration of severe illness in high-risk babies with RSV. Side effects include pain and redness at the injection site, fever and rashes. Serious allergic reactions are rare.

Discuss this treatment with your doctor if you have a high-risk baby to determine whether it might be suitable for them.