Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) usually causes cold-like symptoms that last for a week or two. But some infections can become serious and require care in a hospital.
Because there is a risk for serious complications, you may want to make RSV prevention a high priority if you have a baby.
Assess Your Child’s Risk
RSV can affect anyone, but certain children face especially higher risks of serious complications. They include children who have:
- Chronic lung problems or a heart defect they’re born with
- Neuromuscular disorders, especially conditions that make it hard to swallow or clear mucus
- Weakened immune systems
All children younger than 6 months old have a higher risk of RSV complications. Premature babies also face greater risks of serious illness with RSV.
The time of year can affect your child’s risk, too. An infant may be infected with RSV any time, but the virus’ prime season runs from fall through the end of spring. The peak months for RSV outbreaks are usually January and February. During these times, it’s especially important to follow some proven ways to prevent RSV.
RSV is usually transmitted when someone who has it coughs or sneezes. But it can also survive on certain surfaces for several hours. This means that many of the simple steps you take to lower your risk of getting the flu or other illnesses can be effective RSV prevention steps, too. For example:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough.
- Disinfect surfaces often, such as counters, doorknobs, drawer and cabinet knobs, toys, and other things your baby touches.
- Try to keep your baby’s hands from their nose, mouth, and eyes, especially if their hands haven’t been washed recently.
- Wash your hands and your baby’s hands often with soap and water.
Also, if you’re feeling sick, you may also want to consider wearing a face mask around your infant during the first few months after they’re born, especially if it’s during peak RSV season. The same is true for visitors or others who want to hold your baby. If possible, try to keep your child out of day care or other crowded, confined places, at least during the winter months.
Breastfeeding your baby may offer RSV protection, too. Research suggests that the complications of RSV – including those that require getting oxygen in the hospital – are less serious in babies who are breastfed compared with those who drink formula only or a combination of breastmilk and formula.
Right now, there’s no vaccine for babies to prevent RSV. But new drugs are being created and approved to help lower the risk of getting it or having serious complications. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children at high risk for RSV infection – especially those who live in areas where the infection rate is high – get doses of the drug palivizumab (Synagis). The medication can also help premature babies and those with certain chronic conditions.
Palivizumab is a monoclonal antibody that helps reduce the risk of serious lung illness tied to RSV. Your baby gets one dose by injection each month during RSV season. The drug can’t always prevent infection. And it can’t help treat a baby who is already fighting serious complications.
Another monoclonal antibody is available to help prevent RSV and reduce the risk of serious lung and breathing problems if your baby does get RSV. The drug nirsevimab-alip (Beyfortus) is given as a one-time injection to protect against RSV or related complications for an entire RSV season. The CDC suggests all babies younger than 8 months old get an injection. For high-risk children between 8 and 19 months old, a dose is suggested in their second RSV season, too.
Palivizumab and nirsevimab-alip are not vaccines, which make the body create antibodies to a virus and provide long-term protection. Instead, monoclonal antibodies act kind of like vaccines, but they are usually effective only for several months at most. They use lab-made antibodies that, when injected, attach themselves to virus cells in the bloodstream to prevent infection or make symptoms less serious.
While there are no RSV vaccines that can be given directly to children, there is an adult vaccine that can be given to expectant mothers. The drug Abrysvo is the first approved vaccine that may help protect babies, though it is given to the mother between 24 and 46 weeks of pregnancy. The injectable vaccine causes the mother’s body to create antibodies, which are then passed along to the unborn baby. RSV protection lasts for about 6 months after the baby is born, which is one of the most vulnerable times for an infant to get infected and possibly get seriously ill.
Keeping your child current with all their vaccinations may also help prevent serious illness if they get RSV. Research suggests, for example, that children with an MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination may be less likely to need hospital care for RSV complications.
Talk With Your Doctor
If you have any questions or concerns about home care or medications to help with RSV prevention, talk with your child’s doctor. And if you are pregnant, speak with your doctor about getting the RSV vaccine. Your baby may have a relatively low risk, based on where you live and your childcare situation, so medications or a vaccine may not be appropriate. But rather than try to figure it all out on your own, learn what you can about RSV prevention and discuss the information with your health care team.
Photo Credit: Hans Neleman / Getty Images
American Academy of Pediatrics: “American Academy of Pediatrics Offers Guidance on RSV Prophylaxis, Handling Surge of Pediatric Patients with Respiratory Infections.”
American Medical Association: “COVID and RSV vaccines during pregnancy, new mpox vaccine data with Andrea Garcia, JD, MPH.”
CDC: “RSV in Infants and Young Children," "CDC Recommends a Powerful New Tool to Protect Infants from the Leading Cause of Hospitalization."
Cedars-Sinai: “Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in Children.”
Clinical and Experimental Pediatrics: “Positive association of breastfeeding on respiratory syncytial virus infection in hospitalized infants: a multicenter retrospective study.”
Connecticut Children’s: “New RSV Monoclonal Antibody: What Parents Should Know.”
Mayo Clinic News Network: “Mayo Clinic Q and A: Respiratory syncytial virus outbreaks tend to occur from October to May.”
NYU-Langone Health: “RSV is Spreading Among Children – Here’s Why & When to See a Doctor.”
Vaccine: “Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and respiratory syncytial virus-associated hospital contact.”
FDA: “FDA Approves New Drug to Prevent RSV in Babies and Toddlers.”