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What every parent should know about RSV

Mother holding her baby and kissing her head

Annually, an estimated 58,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized due to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The virus is particularly effective at causing a number of respiratory infections in infants six months old and younger. RSV cases usually spike in the fall and winter ꟷ but recent national data has shown an unusual summertime uptick in the highly contagious virus.

The spike in cases prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a health advisory about RSV in June, encouraging broader testing for RSV among patients presenting with acute respiratory illness who test negative for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

RSV can lead to the common cold and if not caught early can result in bronchitis, pneumonia, croup or bronchiolitis, potentially requiring hospitalization. While most of those hospitalized are discharged in a few days, many will require some form of breathing assistance during their stay.

Dr. Reginald Washington, chief medical officer at HCA Healthcare’s Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver, Colorado, says the off-season increase in RSV may have to do with loosened COVID-19 restrictions heading into the summer months. “We think there was very little RSV last year because kids were not out and about. They wore masks, etc. Now they are being more exposed to each other,” Dr. Washington told CBS 4 Denver last week. “I would say we have two to three times more children with RSV now than we did a week ago,” Dr. Washington added.

Below, we explain what every parent needs to know about RSV: signs and symptoms, when to seek medical attention and how you can prevent it.

Symptoms and treatment of RSV

Most children will have had RSV by the time they turn two years old. Similar to a cold, RSV symptoms may include:

  • Coughing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing

In infants less than six months old, symptoms may include irritability, decreased activity, decreased appetite and breathing issues.

RSV typically clears up on its own after a week or two. To help relieve mild symptoms, you can give your baby over-the-counter pain and fever medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. However, since some medications are not recommended for children, talk to your pediatrician before using any nonprescription cold medicines.

Doctor helping a young girl using a nebulizer as her mom stands behind her

When to go to the ER

Immediately head to the ER if your baby exhibits any of the following symptoms:

  • Dehydration (decrease in wet diapers)
  • Difficult, labored, shallow or rapid breathing
  • High fever
  • Lethargy
  • Skin turning blue (especially lips and fingernails)
  • Unresponsiveness

As both COVID-19 and RSV are surging across the country, Dr. Washington encourages parents to closely monitor for symptoms. “The difficulty is the symptoms are the same, so parents are going to have a difficult time saying ‘Is this RSV?’ or ‘Is this COVID?’ ꟷ and I would discourage parents from trying to make the diagnosis,” he said. If you are unsure as to whether your baby has RSV, always err on the side of caution and seek medical treatment.

Preventing RSV

According to the CDC, RSV can survive on softer surfaces (tissues, hands) for shorter amounts of time than on hard surfaces (tables, cribs). Like a cold, RSV spreads through coughs and sneezes. You are susceptible to spread when you touch an infected surface or come in close contact with an infected person, such as kissing a child’s face. You can reduce the transmission of RSV by:

  • Avoiding close contact with sick people
  • Avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces
  • Covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze
  • Staying home when sick
  • Washing your hands often

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 186 hospitals and more than 2,000 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our approximately 275,000 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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