Baby with RSV

Tips to protect your baby from RSV

Protecting your baby is more than preventing infection – it’s also about knowing the signs of RSV
December 19, 2016

Coughing, sneezing and a runny nose: You might think it is yet another cold, but if your baby is under 2 years old, it could very well be respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

RSV is a virus infecting the lungs and respiratory tract that will sicken nearly every baby before age 2. Often mistaken for a cold, RSV can also infect adults because the body does not develop an immunity to it.

“Its commonality should not be taken lightly,” said Alison Pittman, MSN, RN, CPN, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. “Most healthy children will experience cold-like symptoms, but it can easily spread to babies with pre-existing conditions.” RSV could have serious health implications for these high-risk individuals.

“RSV is spread through droplets expelled from a sneeze or cough that land on other people or surfaces like toys and door handles,” Pittman said. “It invades the body through contact with the eyes, mouth or nose.”

Symptoms of RSV

Most babies infected with RSV will experience coughing, a runny nose and other cold-like symptoms for one to two weeks. However, symptoms could take a dangerous turn. Contact your pediatrician should he or she begin exhibiting the following signs:

  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • High fever, particularly greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Coughing up yellow, green or gray mucus
  • Thick nasal discharge
  • Refusal to be fed
  • Dehydration
  • Blue discoloration of the lips or nails

Those at greatest risk for a severe infection include premature infants, children born with heart or lung problems or those with weakened immune systems due to chronic illnesses or other reasons. Adults with immune system conditions are also susceptible to worrisome infection.

Severe RSV can lead to serious infections like bronchiolitis—which is inflammation of the smallest air branches in the lungs—and pneumonia. “The body’s response to these infections is to secrete more fluid in the lungs,” Pittman said. “This makes it more difficult for a child to breathe and can cause a child to start wheezing.”

“The only way to determine if a baby has RSV is with a rapid RSV test that can only be administered by a health care provider,” Pittman added.

How to prevent RSV

According to Pittman, the methods to prevent RSV parallel those of preventing a cold:

  • Wash hands: Be sure to wash the hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer after sneezing or coughing and before eating.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes: The most effective technique to cover a sneeze is to use a tissue and dispose of it immediately.
  • Do not share utensils: Especially when sick, be sure to use sanitary tableware.
  • Stay home: When ill, treat yourself away from others to avoid spreading germs in communal spaces.

“Keeping your baby away from crowds and people who are sneezing, coughing or have not cleaned their hands can help mitigate some of the RSV risk to your baby,” Pittman said.

High-risk babies may benefit from a very costly medication called palivizumab to help avert a serious RSV infection. The vaccine does not prevent RSV, but it can lesson the severity of the symptoms. This vaccine is injected monthly, at a tune of $1,500 to $2,000 per injection, during the fall and winter months when the likelihood of being afflicted by the virus is much higher. Insurance only covers the vaccine for children deemed high-risk and prone to infection.

How to treat RSV

There is no treatment for RSV. It is a virus, and viral infections are notoriously resistant to medication. If contracted, parents and doctors must treat the symptoms of RSV to minimize its toll on a baby’s respiratory system.

Most symptoms can be treated at home by reducing the child’s fever and increasing the amount of rest and fluids the child receives. Clearing mucus from the nose and using a humidifier may help ease a child’s breathing.

Children who are hospitalized from severe RSV typically receive additional oxygen, intravenous fluids and medications to expand the lung’s airways.

“Because parents often assume RSV is a cold, they may not be aware of the seriousness of the infection,” Pittman said. “I always recommend that if a parent is unsure about their child’s health, consult with a health care provider immediately.”

— Nicole Bender

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