Author: Kethia Eliezer, MD
If you have young children, then you're no stranger to the viral bugs, mostly cold, flu, and, now COVID, that can ground them for a couple of weeks every winter.
But do you know about RSV? Here's everything you need to know.
What is RSV?
RSV stands for the respiratory syncytial virus. It's a common cold virus that causes sneezing, coughing, congestion, and runny nose, but it can be particularly dangerous for adults older than 65 and young children, especially those under 2 years old.
Why are we seeing an increase in RSV?
RSV is nothing new. It's so widespread that most kids will have had it by their 2nd birthday. It tends to hit during the winter in the Northeast, usually starting in November and lasting until May. Although the virus is everywhere all the time, we haven't seen much of it for the last couple of years because of masking and other Covid precautions that have protected kids from it.
Is RSV rising in Stamford and lower Fairfield County?
Being back in school—and unmasked—after two years of relative isolation has made kids extra susceptible to RSV. This may be why rising caseloads started appearing at the end of October across the country, including Stamford and lower Fairfield County. In that month alone at Stamford Hospital, we saw 170 cases of RSV: 146 in children and the rest in adults. This early appearance, coinciding with incidences of flu and COVID rising statewide, could make this winter pretty tough.
How can I tell if it's RSV, the flu, or COVID?
RSV can be just a common cold—fever, cough, congestion, runny nose, sneezing—that most people recover from in a week or two.
But in young children, especially those younger than 1 year, it can move deep into the lungs and cause infection in the small airways called the bronchioles, causing bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
In very young infants (those younger than six months), symptoms may also include poor feeding, irritability, or decreased activity.
It can be hard for parents to distinguish between RSV, the flu, and even COVID, because the symptoms are very similar. Only a pediatrician will be able to make a diagnosis of RSV.
When does RSV require a doctor visit or emergency room?
RSV progresses in stages, potentially leading to bronchiolitis or pneumonia, which can cause severe respiratory distress or "increased worker" breathing, forcing infants to breathe too fast or use all of their muscles just to get enough air. If your baby is using the muscles between her ribs or in her neck to breathe, then she is struggling and needs emergency room care.
- Symptoms of dehydration (fewer than 1 wet diaper every 8 hours), or if your child refuses to drink, eat, or is not peeing as usual;
- Episodes of paused breathing;
- Gray or blue color to tongue, lips, or skin, which is a sign of low oxygen levels; or,
- Significantly decreased activity and alertness
How contagious is RSV?
RSV is highly contagious. It spreads through coughing, sneezing, or kissing—anything that brings your child into contact with respiratory droplets. Since it can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables and crib rails, infection can spread by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after touching contaminated surfaces.
The illness normally lasts three to seven days, although you can actually still transmit the virus up until three to four weeks after you've recovered.
How can I help prevent my child from getting RSV?
The best way to protect your child against RSV is to:
- Practice good hand hygiene. Teach your children to wash hands often, especially at school and when they come.
- Avoid crowded spaces and sick people. If someone is coughing, go the other way.
- Teach your children to sneeze and cough in their sleeves rather than their hands.
- Make sure that your children get their flu and COVID vaccines. (Learn more about how to schedule your flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine.)
- Stay up to date on your own COVID and flu vaccine boosters. (To schedule your vaccines, click on the links above.)
- Wear a mask if your child or anybody in your home is sick.
- Keep sick children home from school so they don't spread the virus.
Unlike the flu or Covid, there's no vaccine or antiviral treatment for RSV. The best treatment is supportive care: make sure your child's nose is clear, that they're drinking enough water, and can rest comfortably.
About the Author
Kethia Eliezer, MD is a pediatrician at Stamford Health Medical Group Pediatric Center in Stamford, CT.
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