Mom’s Warning About RSV Is Personal

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on October 01, 2019
5 min read

Oct. 1, 2019 -- After a contagious illness put her baby in the intensive care unit with trouble breathing, a New Jersey mom wrote a plea to other adults on Facebook.

Ariana DiGrigorio in August urged people to “keep your mouths/breaths away from a baby's face, hands, and feet” to lower the chances of spreading respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common infection that can be dangerous early in life. She included a picture of her son Antonio from earlier this year, back when he was hospitalized with RSV at 8 months old. Her post has over 21,000 shares.

These days, Antonio is an outgoing 15-month-old who’s healthy again. DiGrigorio, an emergency medical technician, says she wrote the post with his new baby brother Matteo in mind. “It was mainly just because flu season is coming up, and because I have a 3-month-old now. I was determined to not let the same thing happen to him,” she says.

Almost all children in the U.S. catch RSV by the time they’re 2 years old. Many of them won’t get a severe illness, but the virus does send tens of thousands of young children to the hospital each year. So if you have a baby or toddler, call the doctor whenever you notice symptoms that concern you.

“RSV can present itself in many ways -- a runny nose and cold and cough, or worse, such as breathing problems or pneumonia,” says WebMD senior medical director and pediatrician Hansa Bhargava, MD. “Although most babies are able to use their immune system to fight off RSV and do just fine, if you're worried that your baby isn't breathing well, is not looking well, coughing a lot, not eating or drinking, or they’re sick, definitely talk to your doctor as soon as possible.”

You can catch RSV at any age. It can happen if someone who has the virus sneezes or coughs on you, or if you touch a surface contaminated with their droplets and then touch your face. You can also get it from direct contact, including kisses, a concern DiGrigorio raises in her post.

“Spread of infection through kissing depends on a number of factors, such as where the baby was kissed -- near her mouth or nose is worse than on her feet, and kisses on fingers are also worse, as babies can suck their fingers,” Bhargava says. If you’re a healthy relative, “in general, the safest place to kiss a baby is on her feet,” she says. Anyone who’s sick should simply stay away from an infant, she says.

Have your family practice other healthy habits that help keep germs from spreading, too. Wash your hands with soap and water often, and try not to touch your face. Don’t share cups, utensils, or other personal items. Sneeze or cough into a tissue or the crook of your elbow. Clean and disinfect surfaces that may have droplets on them. And rest at home when you’re feeling sick.

Even though there’s no vaccine for RSV yet, make sure your child gets all the vaccinations their pediatrician recommends to lower their risk for infections, Bhargava says.

If you have a baby who was born prematurely and/or with a serious health condition, talk to your pediatrician about palivizumab, a drug that can prevent severe RSV infections. Preemies, infants 6 months and younger, and babies with chronic heart or lung disease are among those at highest risk for a severe RSV illness. Babies born full-term and healthy shouldn’t need palivizumab, Bhargava says.

Treatment for RSV focuses on easing symptoms and preventing other health problems. If your pediatrician says your baby or young child has a mild case of it, keep your little one hydrated and have them rest at home. If their nose is stuffed, you may be able to help them breathe easier by suctioning mucus with a bulb syringe. Don’t give your child over-the-counter cold medications unless the doctor recommends one that’s safe.

If your child needs to go to the hospital for severe RSV, they may need treatments including prescription drugs, fluids through a vein, oxygen, or a machine to help them breathe. Many kids can go home after a few days, the CDC says.

Last December, Antonio ran a fever at day care and was diagnosed with the flu. But when his sneezing, cough, and congestion lingered for a couple of months, his mom says she was told the illness just had to run its course. In February, she took him to the emergency room, and tests showed Antonio had RSV.

“Initially I was scared, because I had just started reading a whole bunch of different posts about what happens with kids with RSV. It was one of my biggest fears -- of him getting it,” Ariana DiGrigorio says.

Antonio wasn’t breathing in enough oxygen, so the hospital gave him extra, along with a breathing medication called albuterol. But his illness had gotten worse, so a doctor on the staff had him transferred to another medical center, where he spent 6 days in the intensive care unit.

In the months that followed, Antonio needed albuterol and a couple other medications, including a steroid that helped his airway stay open.

Today, he’s feeling much better. “He is super outgoing, very friendly -- always laughing, rarely cries,” DiGrigorio says.

She and her husband, Nicholas, take their son to a lung specialist called a pulmonologist every 4 months to make sure he continues to do well. They also have to give him albuterol every 4 hours when he shows “any signs of congestion, sneezing, coughing. Other than that, he’s medication-free,” DiGrigorio says.