Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that causes the common cold in adults and older children. Young children are especially susceptible to RSV, and will have had it at least once by the time they are two.
RSV spreads very quickly, especially in daycares or schools. Being near someone with RSV that coughs, sneezes or blows his or her nose can transmit the virus. You can also get it by shaking hands, kissing or touching someone that is infected, especially if you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after contact. Symptoms usually appear four to six days after exposure and include:
- Runny nose
- Lack of appetite
Because RSV is a virus, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Over-the-counter cold medications can help relieve symptoms. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce fevers. It is also important to keep your child hydrated.
Young infants with RSV are susceptible to a lung infection when the bronchioles (small airways) in the lungs are inflamed and filled with mucus, causing wheezing, coughing and possibly respiratory distress. This susceptibility comes from immature defenses in the young infant’s lungs compared to older children and adults.
On exam, infants with bronchiolitis will have wheezing and trouble breathing that can sometimes lead to the need for albuterol and oxygen treatment. Premature babies are even more susceptible to RSV and its breathing complications. We are fortunate to now have a vaccine (Synagis®) to protect premature babies against RSV.
If your child has trouble breathing, or can’t eat or drink, contact your pediatrician immediately. In serious cases, they may need to be admitted to the hospital for oxygen therapy or IV hydration.
The most important question from parents is when to take their wheezing child to the doctor’s office or emergency room. The first time you notice your child wheezing or having a dry, tight cough, the child should be evaluated as soon as possible within 24 hours, ideally in your pediatrician’s office.
If there are any signs of breathing problems, bluish color around the lips and mouth, shortness of breath or muscle retractions, the child needs to be seen quickly, possibly through the emergency room. First-time wheezing and any wheezing with breathing distress must be checked quickly. Your pediatrician is trained and able to provide the necessary treatments to treat wheezing both during your child’s illness and also long term if wheezing is a lasting issue for your child.
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