Influenza (flu) isn’t the only illness that hits kids over the colder months. Mercy Kids ER physicians also commonly see children suffering from RSV. We asked Dr. Timothy Casper, pediatric emergency physician at Mercy Hospital South, what parents need to know about RSV to protect their kids.
What is RSV?
RSV stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus. It's a widespread virus that causes acute respiratory tract infections.
How is RSV different from influenza (flu) and a common cold?
For many people, infection with RSV causes common cold symptoms. Young children often develop signs of lower respiratory tract infection and inflammation called bronchiolitis. For infants or those with pre-existing lung problems, the infection can be more severe.
Influenza, like RSV, is a seasonal virus. Along with respiratory symptoms, however, influenza tends to cause higher fevers and more systemic symptoms such as body aches.
What are the symptoms of RSV? How do I know if these symptoms are serious enough to take my child to a doctor?
RSV infection can cause fevers, runny nose or nasal congestion, vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory problems. Kids may have fast breathing, wheezing, increased use of extra muscles to breath or, in rare cases, apnea.
I advise parents to call or see your doctor if your child has a severe cough, poor fluid intake, or if parents have other concerns. Babies under 6 months, or those born pre-term, are at higher risk with this disease and warrant closer attention. If the child is having trouble breathing (flaring the nostrils, retractions/abnormal chest movements), they need to come to the emergency department.
I seem to hear about RSV mostly in babies. Are they the only people at risk for catching it? And what are the risks if my child does have this virus?
It's important to note that almost everyone catches RSV by the age of two. Babies are at higher risk for bronchiolitis and dehydration, and therefore some of them do require hospitalization when contracting RSV. However, most kids with RSV do very well. This includes many kids I informally classify as "happy wheezers," who continue to drink fluids, interact normally and do not show any significant respiratory distress.
Unfortunately, people can be infected repeatedly throughout life; however, subsequent infections tend to be milder, and testing is therefore rarely done.
Is there anything I can do to prevent my child from getting RSV?
Hand hygiene and avoiding sick people or crowds - the same measures that will help keep your child from catching the flu, stomach viruses and other cold viruses - can also protect from catching RSV. This is something to really consider during your child's first RSV season (winter months, usually January and February). Babies born extremely premature may qualify for antibody infusions for the first one or two winters.