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Jennifer L.W. Fink
Registered Nurse

RSV In Babies

RSV is common in babies and can be scary for moms! Here, answers to all your questions about RSV.

What is RSV in babies?

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. It typically causes swelling and inflammation of the breathing tubes, or bronchioles, which is called “bronchiolitis.”

RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in kids under the age of one, and it can be quite severe. Some kids require hospitalization. Most, though, get through a bout with RSV with no problem. “RSV is a significant lung infection, and it’s definitely to be respected, but it’s not to be feared,” says Natasha Burgert, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, Missouri.

RSV infections (including bronchiolitis) are more common in the fall, winter and early spring.

What are the symptoms of RSV in babies?

“I describe RSV and bronchiolitis as a wheezy cold,” Burgert says. “Most kids will have a little bit of inflammation in their lungs, giving them a wheezy sound.” The sound, though, is different from an asthmatic wheeze, though it may be difficult for parents to tell the difference. Bottom line: If your child looks sick and you hear her wheezing, take her in to the doctor to get checked out.

Other symptoms of RSV and bronchiolitis include a runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing and fever. You might also notice irritability or an increase in efforts to breathe. If your child looks like she’s really struggling to breathe, take her in for medical evaluation ASAP.

Are there any tests for RSV in babies?

Yes. Some doctors use a swab to obtain fluid samples from the back of the nose. A quick lab test of that fluid can check for RSV infection.

But some docs are skipping RSV testing altogether, at least in low-risk kids. “In the clinic, it’s not common for doctors to test for RSV anymore, because whether it’s RSV or another virus, the treatment is the same: watchful waiting,” Burgert says.

How common is RSV in babies?

Almost all kids will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday. Up to 40 percent of infants will develop symptoms the very first time they’re exposed to RSV. Less than 2 percent of babies and toddlers who contact RSV require hospitalization; the other 98 percent recover without any special medical intervention.

How did my baby get RSV?

RSV is spread through the air and by direct contact. If your child is around an infected child who sneezes near her, she might catch RSV. RSV and bronchiolitis can also be spread by direct contact, so if your child kisses a sick child or takes a sip from their cup, she might develop RSV too. RSV also can live on surfaces, so your child can get it simply by touching a toy another kid touched hours earlier and then touching her mouth. No wonder most kids catch RSV before age two!

Preemies and babies with chronic illnesses or heart disease are most susceptible to RSV. They’re also the most likely to get seriously sick when they contract RSV.

Being exposed to cigarette smoke also increases a child’s risk of developing a severe RSV infection. Almost all kids get RSV, but those who live with smokers are more likely to land in the hospital than those who are rarely exposed to cigarette smoke.

What’s the best way to treat RSV in babies?

“The treatment for bronchiolitis and RSV, most of the time, is nothing,” Burgert says. “That’s what really stresses out parents. They want to do something. But the best thing you can do is keep your child’s fever down and keep her hydrated while the infection passes.”

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be used to control fever and keep your child comfortable. You can also use a humidifier in your child’s room at night. Be sure to offer frequent sips of liquid.

Severe cases of RSV or bronchiolitis may require hospitalization. If your child is unable to rest or is struggling to breathe — if she’s breathing more than 50 times per minute or using her chest muscles to breathe — get her to a medical professional ASAP. She might need oxygen, specialized medications and IV fluids.

What can I do to prevent my baby from getting RSV?

Good hygiene may prevent some RSV infections. Wash your child’s hands frequently, especially before meals, and make sure that your child care provider practices good environmental hygiene. Staying away from sick people (and from crowds during peak RSV season) may also help.

Kids at high risk of contracting RSV — preemies and babies with chronic medical problems — are eligible to receive an injection of a drug called Synagis to help prevent RSV.

What do other moms do when their babies have RSV?

“My daughter is three months old today, and we found out she has bronchiolitis. She’s getting Albuterol through a nebulizer every four hours and is taking Orapred once a day for the next five days. Her cough sounds so horrible, and it breaks my heart.”

“My son has bronchiolitis as well. He started wheezing and coughing early last week. I brought him to the doctor on Tuesday, and they started him on Albuterol through the nebulizer.... We've also been running a vaporizer nonstop and bringing him in the bathroom with the shower on hot. So far, there hasn't been much improvement, so I’m bringing him back to the doctor on Friday.... It’s terrible when they're sick because they can't even understand what’s going on.”

“I hate to say this, but it lasted an entire month. The first couple of weeks were awful, and then it got better, but pretty much all of December was spent sucking snot, having him sleep on an incline and vaporizing. He still has a residual cough and chest congestion, and we're headed toward February (onset was in late November). We just saw the doctor, and there’s nothing seriously wrong – it’s just residual crud.”

Are there any other resources for RSV in babies?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

US National Library of Medicine

American Academy of Pediatrics’

The Bump expert: Natasha Burgert, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, Missouri. She blogs at

PHOTO: Isabel Furie