Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a viral infection that can cause significant symptoms in infants under the age of 2 years old. However, most infants who get the virus experience cold-like symptoms and recover without issue.
- babies younger than 6 months
- babies born prematurely
- babies who have a disease of the lungs or immune system
RSV is a virus that is present in droplets from a person’s coughs and sneezes. These germs can spread directly from person to person, or when someone comes into contact with a contaminated item, like a doorknob or toy.
It is more prevalent in the winter and spring months than at other times of the year.
In this article, we examine RSV in babies, including the symptoms they may experience and what caregivers can do to help treat them. We also take a look at when to see a doctor and how to prevent the virus from spreading.
The symptoms of RSV are similar to a bad cold and can include:
- a runny nose
- poor feeding or sleeping
- low energy
- difficulty breathing
- the chest wall pulling in with breathing
- fast breathing
- stopping breathing
RSV is also the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies younger than 1 year. These conditions cause swelling in the lungs, which can lead to the airways filling up with mucus. This combination of mucus and swelling can make breathing difficult.
Every infant experiences RSV a little differently. Some have very mild symptoms while others can have life-threatening issues.
RSV is a virus, and there are few specific treatments to help cure it.
Antibiotics do not work on viruses, and there is no vaccine to prevent the disease. Instead, RSV treatment generally aims to manage the symptoms and prevent complications.
Most cases of RSV in babies go away without treatment after 1 to 2 weeks. Sometimes, caregivers can treat babies at home until the virus passes.
Some simple home remedies can help, including:
- Encouraging fluid intake. If the baby is over 6 months old, try giving them extra water. Encourage breastfed babies to feed as much as possible as this can prevent dehydration and the need for more aggressive hydration.
- Over-the-counter medication. Acetaminophen can treat discomfort and lower a fever. It is essential to talk to a doctor before giving a baby acetaminophen if they have never had it before or are under 3 months old.
- Clearing mucus from the airways. Removing excess mucus from a baby’s mouth or nose using a bulb syringe can make it easier for the baby to breathe and eat.
- Sitting in a steamy bathroom. Turn a hot shower on in a closed bathroom and let it fill with steam. Steam can help to reduce inflammation in the airways, thin mucus, and make it easier to breathe.
Always speak to a doctor before giving cold or cough medications to children and babies. Some medicines contain substances that are not suitable for children under 6 years old. People should avoid giving most cold and cough medicines to infants under 2 years old.
If a baby experiences severe symptoms of RSV, treatment options that can provide relief include:
If a baby is having difficulty breathing, their blood oxygen level will drop, which can be very dangerous if not treated.
When a baby is struggling to breathe, they will need to use a lot more energy. Eventually, the baby can go into respiratory failure and stop breathing, which is an emergency situation.
Giving extra oxygen can increase blood oxygen levels and reduce the effort needed to breathe.
Babies that struggle with breathing may not have the energy to eat or find it difficult to drink enough fluids. Very young babies, especially sick ones, can become dehydrated very quickly.
If the baby is not drinking enough, they may need intravenous hydration or a feeding tube to help them stay hydrated.
In some situations, doctors can give medications to open the baby’s airways to help them breathe.
Very sick or high-risk babies may need antiviral medications to help the immune system attack or clear the virus from their system.
It is essential to call the doctor immediately or seek emergency care if the baby is showing any signs of breathing difficulty, such as:
- rapid breathing
- the chest wall pulling in when breathing
- a blue tinge around the lips or fingernails
Other reasons to see a doctor include if the baby:
- is not eating or drinking enough
- is becoming weak or not as active as usual
- has cold symptoms that are severe or getting worse instead of better
- has a cough that is not going away
RSV is highly contagious, meaning that it spreads between people very easily.
Some straightforward measures can help people avoid contracting the disease or spreading it to others. A few of these measures include:
- Avoiding close contact with anyone who may be sick. Contact includes kissing, hugging, and shaking hands.
- Avoiding sharing contaminated items with other people. Cups, bottles, and toys are all potential carriers of the virus, which can survive on them for hours.
- Frequently washing hands.
- Avoiding touching the face, eyes, mouth, or nose.
In most cases, RSV causes a mild, cold-like illness in babies or young children who will experience a full recovery.
However, RSV can cause life-threatening complications in some babies, particularly those at risk for respiratory disease or premature infants.
Caregivers who suspect their children may have RSV should watch them closely for breathing difficulties and dehydration and speak to their doctor if they have any concerns.