Fall brings sweater weather, crunchy leaves, pumpkin spice everything, football, and of course RSV. Fall to Spring generally means lock down and minimal visitors for medically complex families. So what is RSV and why is it so scary for our babies?
RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It starts out with upper respiratory symptoms like a stuffed nose, cough, and low-grade fever. Pretty similar to the common cold. Unlike the common cold, when RSV moves into a child’s lower respiratory tract, the virus inflames the bronchioles — the small branching airways in the lungs. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under one year of age.
“In an infant, those airways are already tiny. If you add infection, inflammation, and pus, they become almost completely blocked, so it’s really hard to get the air out,” says Dr. Sarah Ash Combs, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.
Almost every child will be infected with RSV by age 2. Most kids get a mild case that improves within a few days to a week. But in infants under 6 months or young children with chronic diseases, the infection can be much more serious.
Each year in the United States, RSV leads, on average, to 2.1 million outpatient visits among children younger than 5 years old.
RSV can be dangerous for some infants and young children. Each year in the United States, an estimated 57,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized due to RSV infection. Those at greatest risk for severe illness from RSV include
- Premature infants
- Very young infants, especially those 6 months and younger
- Children younger than 2 years old with chronic lung disease
- Children younger than 2 years old with chronic heart disease
- Children with weakened immune systems
- Children who have neuromuscular disorders, including those who have difficulty swallowing or clearing mucus secretions
One to two out of every 100 children younger than 6 months of age with RSV infection may need to be hospitalized. Those who are hospitalized may require oxygen, intubation, and/or mechanical ventilation (help with breathing). Most improve with this type of supportive care and are discharged in a few days.
If you have contact with an infant or young child, especially those who were born prematurely, are very young, have chronic lung or heart disease or a weakened immune system, you should take extra care to keep the infant healthy by doing the following:
- Wash your hands often
Wash your hands and your child’s hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Washing your hands will help protect you from germs. Hand sanitizer everywhere!
- Keep your hands off your face
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Germs spread this way.
- Avoid close contact with sick people
Avoid close contact, such as kissing, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who have cold-like symptoms.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve when coughing or sneezing. Throw the tissue in the trash afterward. Teach other children how to properly cover their coughs and sneezes. “Vampire Cough” into their arm. They usually go for that.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces
Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as toys and doorknobs. When people infected with RSV touch surfaces and objects, they can leave behind germs. Also, when they cough or sneeze, droplets containing germs can land on surfaces and objects. The virus will live on surfaces for hours without a host.
- Stay home when you are sick
If possible, stay home from work, school, and public areas when you are sick. This will help protect others from catching your illness.
With RSV, you’ll stay contagious for 3 to 8 days. Don’t smoke near children or compromised adults during RSV season, “Exposure to tobacco smoke in the home makes children more vulnerable to the virus, and to develop a worse case of the virus,” Dr. Combs says.
Scientists are working to find a nasal-spray vaccine to protect against the respiratory syncytial virus.
Remember, don’t kiss the babies!
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