In healthy older children and adults, RSV causes symptoms consistent with a common cold…low-grade fever, runny nose and cough. However, in children under the age of 1 year, RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways (or bronchioles) in the lungs. Bronchiolitis typically presents as cough, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
Each year between November and April, an estimated 75,000 to 125,000 young children in the United States are hospitalized because of this illness (keeping us pediatric hospitalists VERY busy!). Young infants, particularly those who are premature, children with congenital heart disease or chronic lung problems, and children who have immune system problems are at the greatest risk of having severe complications related to this infection.
Just as with other cold viruses, there is no cure for RSV infection. For children who have the illness, the treatment is supportive care with fever control (using acetaminophen or ibuprofen, never aspirin), nasal suctioning (that blue bulb syringe is every parent’s friend!) and plenty of fluids. Children who are sick enough to require hospitalization often will need supplemental oxygen and an IV for extra fluids. Rarely, children become sick enough to require intensive care and a breathing tube to be placed.
Because there is no cure for RSV, the single best treatment is prevention. Good hand washing, covering your coughs and sneezes, and not sharing cups or utensils are the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus. For children at the greatest risk of severe complications, certain premature infants or those with heart, lung or immune system problems, they may be eligible to receive Synagis (palivizumab), a preventative medication. Talk to your child’s doctor if you think your child is at high risk.
If you are concerned that your child is having breathing difficulties and might have RSV, please contact your child’s doctor or take them to a local emergency department or urgent care for evaluation. I hope you don’t need us, but know that the Meriter Pediatric Center is available to evaluate and treat your child, RSV or not!
Have a healthy winter season!