A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

RSV: The common respiratory virus

Image of mother holding her baby

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a virus that makes it difficult to breathe because it causes inflammation of the upper and lower airways.

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a virus that makes it difficult to breathe because it causes inflammation of the upper and lower airways. It is most common in children younger than two years old.

Common symptoms include runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing.

How to protect your child

Respiratory secretions such as saliva and nasal mucus spread respiratory syncytial virus. It is when respiratory secretions from an infected person enter your child’s body through their mouth, nose or eyes that they can become infected. This includes if your child touches a hard surface that was infected since RSV can survive on hard surfaces for up to six hours.

“When you have a baby, RSV is one of the primary reasons we encourage good handwashing and hygiene,” said Dr. Kerry Storms, pediatrician with Marshfield Children’s. “It is important to keep your child’s hands clean. RSV can be spread every time they put their hands in their mouth.”

Dr. Storms recommends that as soon as the child can sit up, you can begin to practice hand washing. In the meantime, you can use wipes.

Besides proper hygiene, keeping sick people at bay and making sure your child’s daycare follows proper sick protocols can be important.

“We recommend parents to isolate their babies from anyone outside the immediate household for the first three or more months, if possible, especially during respiratory season,” Dr. Storms said. “This is important because babies cannot tell us when they are sick or what they are sick with.”

If your child has to encounter others, make sure those individuals are washing their hands and limiting the amount of time they are touching the baby.

RSV is most common from November to May, typically peaking in January or February. Dr. Storms also says children can be get RSV again after an initial infection, but additional infections are typically less severe.

What to do if your child has RSV

Dr. Storms says nearly all children are infected with respiratory syncytial virus by the age of two, so it is important not to get carried away if your child has RSV.

The World Health Organization estimates that 60% of acute respiratory-related infections are linked to RSV,” Dr. Storms said. “A lot of times we don’t even test for it because we know its RSV and it doesn’t change how we treat it.”

There are no specific recommendations to quarantine for RSV, but if your child has a fever, you should keep them home from daycare or school until they are fever-free for 24 hours.

Severe cases are more common among:

  • Immunocompromised children
  • Premature infants and infants less than 12 weeks old
  • Infants with chronic lung disease
  • Male infants
  • Infants living in crowded living environments
  • Infants that are bottle-fed

The best way to treat RSV is by making sure your child can breathe, eat and drink.

“Babies primarily breathe out of their nose, so nasal suctioning is the treatment for RSV,” Dr. Storms said. “When at home, infants with RSV do not need oxygen or any medicines. They just need time.”

Infants and children should be brought to the Emergency Department if you see their nose flaring or if you see retractions between or under their ribs. Both of these are signs that your child is having breathing troubles.

If you are concerned about your child’s symptoms, please talk to their pediatrician.


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