What parents need to know about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Female doctor listening to a baby's heart with a stethoscope

Influenza (flu) season is in full swing across the country, with 19 states reporting a high-level of flu-like-activity. Unfortunately, that’s not the only virus on the rise this time of year. It’s also the peak period for respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV – a condition that affects mostly children and can be quite serious.

Woman with dark blonde hair. Headshot of Amy Nelms.

Amy Nelms

HCA Houston Healthcare’s Amy Nelms, the interim director of the pediatric and pediatric intensive care unit at Clear Lake Regional Medical Center, says they have seen an increase in cases this winter.

“RSV is not just the common cold for children who are less than 2 years old,” Nelms, an 18-year registered nurse, said. “Children are less able to cope with the severity of this infection than adults. It’s important that we educate parents on this virus and what symptoms to look out for.”

On the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) December alert about RSV, Helms spoke over the phone with HCA Healthcare Today to provide parents with more information about the dangerous condition that could mimic the flu.

What is RSV?

It’s a respiratory virus that is very common in the pediatric world. It causes cold-like symptoms that can lead to a severe lung infection like pneumonia or bronchitis. According to the CDC, more than 57,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized each year due to RSV. Adults are not immune to RSV either. Approximately, 177,000 adults older than 65 are hospitalized each year with the condition.

Who’s most at risk?

Parents of small children especially need to be aware of RSV. What may look like a run-of-the-mill cold can actually be very significant for children ages 2 and under. Other populations that are at risk include:

  • premature babies,
  • individuals with weakened immune systems, and
  • people with chronic lung and heart disease.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are similar to the common cold and can sometimes appear between 2-8 days after contact with RSV. Individuals are contagious 3-8 days after exposure, however, small babies and people with weakened immune systems can be contagious for as long as 4 weeks, even if they are not showing symptoms. Symptoms can include:

  • fever
  • reduced appetite
  • runny nose
  • cough
  • congestion
  • wheezing

What should parents with small babies look for?

The smaller the child, the smaller the airway. Therefore, increased mucus production can inhibit the child’s ability to breathe and to exchange oxygen. Parents should look for:

  • Fast breathing
  • head bobbing with breathing
  • grunting
  • wheezing

Those symptoms need to be evaluated quickly to determine if the child is at risk for respiratory failure or need additional respiratory support.

How is RSV diagnosed?

A physical exam will be performed to check for wheezing and other related symptoms. Also, swabbing the nose and back of the throat to check for signs of the virus, as well as monitoring oxygen levels (pulse oximetry) and lung inflammation through chest X-rays.

How is it treated?

Typically, and for less severe cases, RSV has to run its course. Since it is a virus, antibiotics are not helpful. Most of our treatment efforts will be supportive: recommending rest and fluids to prevent dehydration and managing fever with over-the-counter pain relievers.

In some cases, healthcare professionals may need to administer medication to help open airways like inhalers or other respiratory-related prescriptions.

Children who are hospitalized due to RSV may require IV fluids, oxygen, or mechanical ventilation (breathing machine).

Is there a vaccine for RSV?

There is currently no vaccine for RSV.

Babies born before 29 weeks, who are considered a high-risk population, can be given medication to help prevent contracting RSV. It consists of a series of monthly shots given during the peak season.

We also recommend keeping up to date with the annual flu shot and vaccination (DTap) to protect against whooping cough. Both are illnesses that children and adults can contract at the same time of year as RSV.

How to protect your children from RSV?

  • Hand-washing is extremely important. Everyone should wash their hands with soap often and for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick and keep your children away from individuals who have cold-like symptoms.
  • If anyone exhibits cold-like symptoms, refrain from kissing high-risk children.
  • Clean contaminated surfaces to help stop the spread of RSV.

Clear Lake Regional Medical Center is located in Webster, Texas and is part of a family of hospitals affiliated with HCA Houston Healthcare

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 182 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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