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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Beyond the Flu and Bird Flu

Find out what's really ailing you this cold and flu season.
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RSV continued...

Like the flu, RSV is basically a respiratory illness. Its effects can range from a few sniffles to life-threatening pneumonia. Someone with the flu is more likely to have a fever and body aches, and someone with RSV is more likely to have a runny nose, a cough that produces mucus, and wheeze. It's especially virulent among infants. "Babies with RSV get wheezy, turn blue, and may go on ventilators," Walsh says. "It's a scary illness and it's really common." By contrast, he says when you are sick with the flu you will experience more fever symptoms than if you are sick with RSV. "In the very young and the very old, RSV can be quite virulent," says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai in New York City, and the author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu. "It is most dangerous in first six months of life because the infants can develop bronchiolitis," an infection of the smallest branches of the respiratory system, he says.

That's why early identification of RSV in infants is key, adds Albert L. Pizzica, DO, a neonatologist in Philadelphia and president of the National Perinatal Association, now based in Harrisburg, Pa. "You have to recognize a worsening cold because especially in preemies, we don't have a margin or error," he says. "It's a very short line between a mild cold and flu and being put on a breathing machine." Premature infants are at high risk of developing RSV, yet a new survey conducted by USA/DIRECT shows that parents of preemies know precious little about this bug. In fact, 90% of parents whose babies have been hospitalized with RSV say that they need better information about RSV prevention.

There is no widely used treatment for RSV, but ribavirin, an antiviral, can be used for the sickest of the sick. "It's controversial whether ribavirin helps or not and whether it can actually do some damage is not entirely clear," Schachter says.

Unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for RSV yet, Walsh says, although that's not from lack of trying. Unfortunately, attempts to develop a vaccine have met with varying degrees of failure.

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