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What Parents Should Know About RSV

Winter is that time of year when kids are more likely to get hit with “bugs” — those pesky colds or viral infections that are no fun to endure. With so much going around, it can be difficult to know what’s behind that constant cough, especially if your child is very young. One of these common bugs is RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Although it usually causes symptoms that are more like a mild cold, the virus can develop into something more serious. 


Nearly everyone contracts RSV by the time they are 2 years old. But an estimated 57,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized each year in the United States due to RSV. In these extremely severe cases, a hospital may provide oxygen and fluids from an IV. The virus can cause bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the small airway of the lungs; or pneumonia, which is an infection of the air sacs in the lungs. 

Even though RSV is common, and it might seem difficult to figure out how severe it will become, there are some risk factors parents should be aware of. Children who are born premature or are 6 months old or younger are most at-risk for RSV complications. Children with chronic heart or lung disease, or a weaker immune system, can also be susceptible to RSV, and the largest uptick of cases is in the fall or winter. 

RSV symptoms may vary. For young infants with RSV, they might be irritable, sluggish or find it harder to breathe. Other symptoms might include:

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

Also, if your young child has fewer than one wet diaper every 24 hours, it might be a sign of dehydration, which could possibly come from RSV.

Your pediatrician will be able to figure out whether it’s a common cold or RSV, if you have concerns about symptoms your child is showing. They might perform tests, like chest X-rays to see if pneumonia has developed. 

Keep in mind that there’s no vaccine to prevent RSV. The virus usually goes away on its own but rest and fluids may help rid the illness, as with any viral infection. 

RSV is spread through coughs and sneezes and is extremely contagious. The following tips may help reduce your family’s risk:

  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hands
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces at home
  • If you’re sick, stay home

With the knowledge of what RSV may look like — and how it is different from a common cold — you’ll be able to take steps to keep your child as healthy as possible as they get the most out of winter.