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7 Things You Didn’t Know About RSV

Arm yourself with these little-known facts about a very common (and potentially serious) virus.
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Published
October 27, 2022
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While we may have reached a certain comfort level with some viruses in our lives, there is one virus that poses a particular danger to young children across the country: Respiratory Syncytial Virus. RSV infects two out of three babies by their first birthday. Many babies can recover from the viral infection with no complications, but for some, it can spread to the lungs and cause a more severe infection. In fact, RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization in babies under age 1.

There is no preventative treatment for RSV yet (scientists are working on it!), but it helps to learn more about this potentially serious virus. Here are a few surprising facts about RSV you may not have known. Talk to your doctor for more information.

1. It’s Hard to Tell the Difference Between RSV and a Cold at First

The first symptoms of RSV are usually mild and may include a runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing and fever. And while those symptoms are present in nearly every childhood illness, the difference with RSV is that things can go downhill very quickly, especially with babies.

Kristina Deeter, pediatric intensivist and medical director at Pediatrix Critical Care and Hospitalists of Nevada, explains that there are two main symptoms that parents often miss: 1. Baby is breathing very fast; 2. Baby is having brief pauses in their breathing. “Any baby that is having trouble breathing or eating should be seen immediately so they can be assessed before things get worse,” she says.

2. Anyone Can Get RSV

RSV is commonly considered a virus that only affects babies and children, but the truth is, anyone can get RSV (and actually, nearly every human will). Most recover from the virus within a few weeks, but some people will be more at risk for complications, including children under the age of 2, adults over the age of 65 and anyone who has a medical condition or suppressed immune system.

“This risk is increased in premature babies, babies with conditions that affect the lungs such as bronchopulmonary dysplasia, babies with congenital heart disease and babies with Down syndrome,” adds Rachel Buck, DO, Phoenix Children’s Pediatrics in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Additionally, having smoke present in the home increases the risk of complications from RSV.

3. Even Healthy Babies Can Get Very Sick from RSV

While the risk of serious complications from RSV is greater in babies with other conditions, it’s also important to understand that RSV does not discriminate. In fact, the majority of hospitalizations from RSV are babies who were born with no underlying health concerns. Dr. Buck explains that RSV is a lower respiratory infection that affects the bronchioles (the small airways in the lungs), and because babies’ airways are so small, the virus can become more dangerous. So be on the watch for symptoms in baby that could include difficulty breathing and eating, dehydration and pauses in their breathing.

4. You Can Get RSV More Than Once

Unfortunately, just because baby has had RSV once, doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t get it again. RSV, like many other viruses, can strike more than once. Fortunately, however, Victoria Regan, MD, a pediatrician with Children’s Memorial Hermann in Houston, says that if your baby does get infected twice, subsequent infections are likely to be more mild than the first round.

5. Most Cases of RSV Can be Treated at Home

The good news is, while RSV can be severe for certain groups, Dr. Regan says most cases of RSV can be successfully treated at home with strategies like making sure your baby is hydrated, using a cool-mist humidifier, clearing your baby’s nose with saline and a suction device and using over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers as appropriate. She notes that less than 3 percent of babies will require hospitalization for RSV.

6. Breast Milk Has Antibodies Against RSV

We all know breast milk can be liquid gold in many ways, and according to Dr. Regan, breast milk also contains a special antibody that can specifically help fight RSV—so if you’re a nursing parent, keep offering your baby all the breast milk they want!

7. You Can Help Protect Your Baby With One Simple Step

As we learn more about the serious symptoms of RSV, Patricia N. Whitley-Williams, MD, immediate past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), explains that handwashing is one of the most important things you can do to help prevent RSV in your home.

Other ways you can help prevent the spread of RSV include:

  • Cover coughs and sneezes (looking at you, older siblings!).
  • Avoid letting others have close contact with baby when they are sick, such as kissing baby.
  • Don’t touch faces with unwashed hands.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces, like phones and doorknobs.
  • Talk to baby’s healthcare professional for additional information about RSV.

As parents, it can be so challenging to navigate sickness with our kids, especially in light of the past two years. But the most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to make those decisions alone—finding a trusted physician you can turn to when you have questions makes all the difference. “Parents are always the best judge, and we as pediatricians rely on them to alert us if their child appears ill,” says Robin Jacobson, MD, medical director for pediatrics at NYU Langone Medical Associates. In other words? You know your child best, so don’t hesitate to call your doctor or seek medical attention if you think something is wrong.

About the Experts:

A graduate of Notre Dame University, Victoria Regan received her medical degree from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. She then completed her internship and residency in pediatrics at McGovern Medical School, where she was chief resident. Board certified in pediatrics, Dr. Regan has been in practice since 1991; she is now a pediatrician and senior vice president at Memorial Hermann Health System, where she oversees women’s and children’s care. She provides comprehensive pediatric care to patients from newborn to age 18 and enjoys working closely with parents and providing them with guidance on normal growth and development. Dr. Regan is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Texas Pediatric Society and Texas Medical Association.

Rachel Groetsch Buck, DO, is a pediatrician with Phoenix Children’s Pediatrics—Paradise Valley. Dr. Buck received her undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona and attended medical school at Midwestern University. She then completed her pediatric training at the University of Connecticut. She returned to Arizona for warmer weather and to practice as a pediatrician. Dr. Buck believes in caring for a child’s total health—mind, body and spirit. Her special interests include nutrition and obesity prevention, breastfeeding, allergies, asthma and adolescent health.

Kristina Deeter, MD, MBA, is a pediatric intensivist and medical director at Pediatrix Critical Care and Hospitalists of Nevada. Dr. Deeter also serves as specialty medical officer for pediatric critical care medicine nationally at Pediatrix Medical Group; chair of pediatrics at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine; and physician-in-chief at Renown Children’s Hospital. She earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Doctor of Medicine from New York Medical College. She completed her residency training in pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and a fellowship in pediatric critical care at the University of Washington—Seattle Children’s Hospital. Dr. Deeter also earned a master’s in business administration (MBA) from the University of Nevada, Reno Executive MBA Program.

Robin Jacobson, MD, is the medical director for pediatrics at NYU Langone Medical Associates—Washington Square. She also serves as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She specializes in general pediatrics, including preventive health care, vaccinations and pediatric–well child visits. She is a member of the American Association of Pediatrics and Phi Beta Kappa and board- certified in Pediatrics since 1996. Dr. Jacobson received her M.D. at Tufts University School of Medicine in 1993 and completed her internship, residency and chief residency in pediatrics at Montefiore Medical Center.

Patricia N. Whitley-Williams, MD, is immediate past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). Dr. Whitley-Williams is also professor of pediatrics; chief of the Division of Pediatric Allergy, Immunology and Infectious Diseases; and associate dean of inclusion and diversity at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Ever since her first microbiology course at Simmons College in Boston, she has been fascinated with how organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye can cause such harm in a human being.

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Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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