A closer look at the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

When they suffer from symptoms like fever, cough, and nasal congestion, many assume they are battling the flu. However, these could also be symptoms of a lesser known virus: RSV or respiratory syncytial virus. RSV, which causes infection of the lungs and airways, is one of the leading causes of respiratory illness in young children and is one of the most common reasons for hospital visits among infants and children. This viral infection can lead to croup, bronchiolitis, lung failure, and pneumonia.

While most children recover from the illness within a week or two, respiratory syncytial virus infection can be severe in some cases, especially in premature babies and babies with underlying health problems. RSV can also become serious in older adults, adults with heart and lung disease, or anyone with a weakened immune system.

Common symptoms

Symptoms of RSV vary with age and vary in severity from mild to severe. Consulting a doctor in the early stages of the disease is the key to preventing serious complications. It is important to note that while many children are infected with the virus, only a very small percentage of children develop serious symptoms or complications.

Parents should closely monitor their children for these symptoms of RSV:

Bluish skin or nails due to lack of oxygen.
Labored or rapid breathing
Coughing or wheezing
Fever or irritability
Refusal to feed or persistent vomiting.

Forceful breathing, high fever, thick nasal discharge, and cough that gets worse and produces yellow, green, or gray mucus are signs of a serious or worsening illness. Call your doctor right away if symptoms get worse.

RSV diagnosis and treatment

When you visit your child’s doctor with any of these symptoms, he or she will evaluate your child and do a runny nose test or chest X-ray if necessary. Mild infections clear up on their own and usually last for about a week or several weeks in some cases. Sometimes medications can be given to help open the airways; however, most of the time, the only treatment needed for mild cases is rest.

For parents of children diagnosed with an RSV infection, the following treatment is suggested:

Provide plenty of fluids. For babies, offer liquids in small amounts at more frequent intervals.
Use a nasal aspirator (or a pear) to remove sticky nasal fluids in babies.
Treat a fever with a medicine that does not contain aspirin, such as acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used in children with viral illnesses.

How to prevent the spread of RSV

RSV is highly contagious and can be transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes into the air, sending virus-containing droplets into the air, where they can infect a person if these droplets come into contact with their mouth, nose, or eye.

Infection can also result from indirect contact, such as touching a virus-infected doorknob.

Researchers are working to develop an RSV vaccine, but one is not yet available. However, RSV can be prevented using common sense precautions such as:

Diligently cover your coughs and sneezes.
Wash your hands often, especially before touching your baby.
Avoid sharing cups and cutlery
Use a disinfectant to clean hard surfaces that many people touch (such as doorknobs, telephones, remote controls, etc.).
Limit your baby’s contact with people who have a fever or colds.
Do not smoke. Babies who are exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of RSV and potentially more serious symptoms.

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