RSV 101: What Every Parents Needs to Know

As summer winds down, we begin bracing ourselves for the cold: thick coats, gloves, winter boots are all moved to the forefront of our closest. While we may have a love/hate relationship with Old Man Winter, we can all agree that the illnesses that present themselves during this time are by far the worst part. One potentially serious illness that affects our young children is Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV. RSV is a very common virus, but has the potential to do some serious damage to infants. Here is what parents need to know should your child come down with RSV.

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How and when is RSV spread?

RSV is spread like a common cold virus– coughing, sneezing- droplets from these come in contact with open orifices. The virus can live for a long time on surfaces: cribs, handrails, toys, etc.In the US, RSV infection generally occurs in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. The exact timing and severity of an outbreak can vary year to year.

Who is at risk?

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  • Premature infants
  • Young children with congenital heart or chronic lung disease
  • Young children with compromised immune systems due to a medical condition or medical treatment
  • Infants under one are more susceptible to complications than older children
  • Adults with compromised immune system
  • Older adults, especially those with underlying heart or lung disease

What are the symptoms?

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Symptoms usually present themselves within 4-6 days of infection. Almost all kids by the age of 2 will experience RSV in some form or another.

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Irritability


Most RSV symptoms resolves themselves within a week or two. With your doctor’s approval, fever and pain can be treated with age appropriate medicines. As with all illnesses, it is extremely important to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration. Cool mist humidifiers can be used to relieve a stuffy nose.

If you child is having trouble breathing seek medical help immediately. Some signs of having trouble breathing include:

  • Nasal flaring
  • Pulling or tugging at the skin near the ribs/chest caving in
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Blue lips, skin, or nails
If you child has breathing pauses for 10-15 seconds or longer- take them to the Emergency Room immediately.


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Not all cases of RSV are the same. Most often, infections result in mild symptoms that go away with little to no treatment. Still, others are more severe and require more aggressive treatment. One more serious condition that can arise is bronchiolitis, inflammation of the tiny passages in the lungs. Bronchitis and pneumonia can also occur. Usually these conditions occur in children that are younger than 1 year of age.

Treatment for more severe cases:

Cases that result in bronchiolitis need to be treated more aggressively to prevent pneumonia. This condition causes an increased production of mucus. The passageways that are affect, bronchioles, become inflamed and swell, becoming plugged with mucus, decreasing the child’s ability to breath. If your child is suffering from bronchiolitis your doctor may treat them with a nebulizer and steroids, just as they would a child with asthma. If you child continues to have trouble breathing or is not getting better, your child may receive a chest X-ray to rule out infection.

There is no specific treatment for RSV itself. More serious cases result in hospitalization. In these instances the child may receive IV fluids, oxygen, and humidified air. In these cases the child may be placed on a mechanical ventilator to assist with breathing.

Long Term Effects

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Children that experience more serious cases of RSV, or are exposed at a very young age, may experience long term effects. It is not clear whether these conditions are due to the RSV itself or the child’s make up from birth. However, it is generally believed that infants that develop bronchiolitis are at a higher risk for asthma and other respiratory conditions later in life. For these children’s simple colds may linger much longer with more aggressive symptoms. The use of the nebulizer, steroids, and antibiotics may be commonplace to help these children heal. Often, doctor’s believe that overtime children will grow out of these symptoms.

Protect Yourself

Help be the cure for RSV and many other commonly illnesses: WASH YOUR HANDS. Help teach your child to cover their cough by coughing into there shoulder or a tissues. Avoid sharing of cups and clean toys properly.

Cold and flu season is hard enough, but having to go to the doctor during it sets you up for trouble. Check our article The Germ-Free Guide to Entertaining Kids at the Doctor’s Office to help get in a out without catching more germs.

This post is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician, doctor or health care professional. Please read our terms of use for more information.

Photo Credits: Ashley W

Sources: CDC, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Very Well




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