RSV may look and sound like a cold, but can quickly transform into a more serious condition. Learn what red flags to look for to distinguish RSV from other respiratory illnesses.
Does your baby have the sniffles or a minor cough? While you may initially attribute these symptoms to the common cold, the condition may be more serious. Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common and highly contagious virus that affects the respiratory tract of young children. For some children, the condition causes nothing more than a bad cold. For others, RSV can morph into a more serious illness such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
“RSV is passed from one person to another by contact of secretion,” says Leslie Young, author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Vaccines. Most commonly, a tiny amount of secretion from a sick baby containing the virus is touched by a care provider, and the secretion is transferred to other places on the hands. The virus can stay alive on a contaminated surface for many hours. If another person touches the contaminated object, the virus is transferred to the next victim.”
For most healthy babies and young children, RSV may only produce symptoms of the common cold, such as sneezing, coughing, and fever. In a premature or young infant or in a child with a health condition that affects the heart, lungs, or immune system, the impact of RSV can be much greater.
Symptoms of RSV
If your little one has symptoms of a cold that are slightly out of the ordinary, you may suspect RSV. The common virus can produce a variety of symptoms similar to those of colds and pneumonia. These symptoms often appear in stages and not all at once, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Very young infants may only exhibit a few symptoms like decreased activity, irritability, and breathing difficulties.
Recognize what RSV looks and sounds like. With RSV, it’s common for babies to have a lot of mucus, making it difficult for them to breathe out of their noses. An infection can also result in wheezing and congestion in the lungs. You may hear wheezing when your child inhales and exhales.
Wheezing may be accompanied by flaring of the nostrils, a light cough, and retractions in the neck, known as suprasternal retractions. More severe RSV can cause rapid breathing, bluish or pale skin tone, significant retractions, prolonged coughing spells, and possibly gagging or vomiting with cough.
Other red flags may include:
- Trouble breathing
- Upset or inactive
- Cough producing green, yellow, or gray mucus
- Refusal to breastfeed or bottle-feed
- Dehydration (minimal urine, lack of tears, cool, dry skin)
If your baby is breathing very rapidly or has a blue tint to the fingernails or lips, seek medical attention for your baby immediately.
What the Experts Say
“RSV can be very serious. However, babies who are otherwise healthy generally recover from the illness in one to two weeks without the need for medical treatments. Babies who are finding it difficult to breathe may need to stay at a hospital to receive supportive care, such as supplemental oxygen and suctioning of mucus from their airways.”
– Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Year, Mayo Clinic
“Just as there’s no cure for the common cold, there’s no cure for RSV. When a baby gets the virus, the important things are to keep her nourished and breathing adequately while her body’s immune system does its job of fighting the infection off.”
– Preemies – Second Edition, Dana Wechsler Linden, Emma Trenti Paroli, Mia Wechsler Doron
“Almost all children recover fully with no lasting effects. Reinfection throughout life is common, though lower respiratory tract symptoms are most common in infants and toddlers and most marked in the first infection. In older children, RSV is indistinguishable from the common cold.”
– What to Expect the 1st Year, Heidi Murkoff
“Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is one of the most common causes of lower respiratory illness in infants and children. It is a highly contagious virus. RSV is usually most active in the winter and early spring months, and is spread, like the flu, through contact with an infected person or something that an infected person has come into contact with. Most kids have been exposed to RSV by the time they are two years old.”
– Acupoint and Trigger Point Therapy for Babies and Children, Donna Finando
“It’s believed that nearly half of all babies catch some type of RSV every year, usually in winter. Its symptoms are like a cold with a runny nose and nasal congestion, a low-grade fever, decreased appetite, and general irritability. For most babies, RSV is mild, but for preemies and babies with serious diseases, such as HIV, congenital heart disease, or lung conditions, it can be deadly.”
– Baby’s First Year, Sandy Jones, Marcie Jones, Michael Crocetti
Is it a cold – or something more serious? If you suspect that your child has RSV or another type of respiratory distress, consult with your pediatrician. While there’s no specific treatment for RSV, there are ways to relieve symptoms so that your baby gets the rest she needs for a rapid recovery.