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RSV in Babies

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common and highly contagious virus that infects the respiratory tract of most children before their second birthday. For most babies and young children, the infection causes nothing more than a cold. But for a small percentage, infection with the RSV virus can lead to serious problems such as bronchiolitis, which is inflammation of the small airways of the lungs, or pneumonia, which can become life-threatening.

The risk of severe infection is greatest for:

  • Premature infants
  • Children younger than 2 who were born with heart or lung disease
  • Babies and young children whose immune systems are weakened due to illness or medical treatment
  • Children under 8 to 10 weeks of life

Symptoms of RSV

Cold-like symptoms of RSV infection, including cough and runny nose, usually last one to two weeks.

You should call your baby's doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • High fever.
  • Thick discharge from the nose
  • Cough producing yellow, green, or gray mucus
  • Unusual irritability or inactivity
  • Refusal to breastfeed or bottle-feed
  • Signs of dehydration, including lack of tears when crying; little or no urine in the diaper for six hours; cool, dry skin

If your baby is lethargic or breathing very rapidly or has a blue tint to the lips or fingernails, get medical attention immediately.

RSV Prevention

RSV is spread easily by touching people or surfaces infected with the virus. Taking measures to prevent RSV infection is important for all babies. But it's especially important for those at high risk for severe infection.

The following tips can help prevent the spread of the virus to your baby:

  • Wash your hands frequently, particularly after contact with anyone with cold symptoms.
  • Clean and disinfectant hard surfaces.
  • Do not allow peopleto touch your baby without first washing their hands.
  • Avoid kissing your baby if you have cold symptoms.
  • Keep your baby away from crowds.
  • Do not allow anyone to smoke around your baby.
  • Limit the time high-risk babies and young children stay in day care, particularly from late fall to early spring when RSV is most prevalent.
  • If possible, keep your baby away from anyone, including older siblings, with cold symptoms.

Although there is no vaccine yet for RSV, a medication called palivizumab may protect high-risk babies from serious complications of RSV infection. If your baby is considered high-risk, speak to the doctor about once-monthly injections of this drug during peak RSV season.

RSV Treatments

Although palivizumab may help prevent serious complications of RSV infection, it is not used to treat RSV. There is no medication to treat the virus itself. Therefore, caring for a baby with RSV infection involves treating symptoms of infection and its effects on the respiratory system.

For most babies and young children, at-home care is enough.

At-home treatment includes:

  • Removing sticky nasal fluids with a bulb syringe using saline drops
  • Using a cool-mist vaporizer to keep the air moist and make breathing easier
  • Providing fluids in small amounts frequently through the day
  • Giving non-aspirin fever-reducers such as acetaminophen

For babies with more serious cases requiring hospitalization, treatment may include:

  • Oxygen
  • IV fluids
  • Medications to open the airways

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on September 09, 2013

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