While COVID-19 and influenza continue to make headlines, another contagious respiratory virus has been spreading at an alarming rate, one which can be severe and even life-threatening to infants and toddlers.
Indeed, respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is so common that nearly 100% of children have been infected with the virus by age two. It’s also the leading cause of hospitalizations in all infants. While most people, including infants, develop only mild symptoms, for some, it can progress to severe complications. Despite these facts, many parents have never heard of RSV. This is why the American Lung Association with support from Sanofi Pasteur, is working to educate expectant mothers, parents and caregivers about RSV’s symptoms, when to contact a healthcare provider, and the steps they can take to protect themselves and their children.
“Typically, peak season for RSV infection in the United States is fall through spring, however, a rise in cases in the summer of 2021 prompted a health advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With people taking fewer precautions as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, RSV is spreading at an unusually high rate,” says Albert Rizzo, M.D., chief medical officer for the Lung Association.
Here are the symptoms of RSV, as well as how to recognize signs that may indicate a worsening illness:
- Mild cold-like symptoms, including congestion, runny nose, fever, cough and sore throat.
- Very young infants may be irritable, fatigued and have breathing difficulties.
- A barking or wheezing cough can be one of the first signs of a more serious illness.
- Infants with severe RSV will have short, shallow, rapid breathing. This can be identified by a “caving-in” of the chest between and under the ribs (chest wall retractions), a “spreading-out” of the nostrils with every breath (nasal flaring), and abnormally fast breathing. In addition, the mouth, lips and fingernails may turn bluish due to lack of oxygen.
When to call the doctor: Parents should call their pediatrician if their child has a poor appetite or decreased activity level, cold-like symptoms that become severe, a shallow cough that continues day and night, or their child is experiencing any new, worrisome symptoms. They should seek emergency care if their child is having trouble breathing.
RSV is spread through close contact with someone who’s infected via coughing and sneezing, or from touching objects such as toys or doorknobs that have the virus on them.
“Those in contact with an infant or young child, especially if they were born prematurely, are very young, have chronic lung or heart disease, a weakened immune system, or have neuromuscular disorders, should take extra care to keep them healthy by washing hands, covering coughs or sneezes and avoiding them when sick, if at all possible,” Dr. Rizzo adds.
There’s no vaccine yet to prevent RSV, but scientists are working hard to develop one. However, everyone can help stop its spread in the following ways:
- Avoiding close contact with infected people.
- Avoiding sharing cups, bottles or toys that may be contaminated with the virus.
- Washing hands with soap and water after coming into contact with an infected person.
More information about RSV is available at Lung.org/RSV.
For parents of little ones, being aware of RSV is critical during its peak season and beyond.