When a baby gets respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), it often causes cold-like symptoms that may need little treatment other than over-the-counter medicines and basic home care.
But a serious infection may need more aggressive RSV treatments, including a temporary hospital stay. There, your baby can get IV fluids, supplemental oxygen, breathing treatments, and deep suctioning of mucus if they need it.
What Is RSV?
RSV is a common, very contagious viral infection that affects most children before the age of 2. RSV can make breathing harder. It’s also the leading cause of bronchiolitis (swelling of the lung’s small airways) and pneumonia in infants.
While most cases of RSV in infants are mild and short, some can get worse and cause babies to go to the hospital. The CDC estimates that as many as 80,000 children under the age of 5 go to the hospital every year with an RSV infection. One or two out of every 100 babies younger than 6 months old with an RSV infection may need at least a short stay in the hospital.
RSV Care for Your Baby at Home
Most mild RSV infections will clear up within a couple of weeks, with or without any treatment. Mild cases of RSV may be treated effectively with over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to help reduce a fever and soothe sore throat pain. You should never give aspirin to an infant. A lukewarm bath may also help bring down a mild fever.
RSV also usually brings on congestion and a runny nose. Try saline drops to break up congestion. A cool-mist humidifier may be helpful, too. Gentle nasal suction can also help clear out mucus and make breathing a little easier.
Getting enough fluids will also help loosen congestion and prevent dehydration. If your baby’s throat is sore, they may not want to swallow fluids, but it’s important to keep them hydrated. Breast milk or formula are best because they also contain important nutrients. Water is also helpful, but don’t let your baby go too long without breast milk or formula.
When Should We Go to the Doctor?
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out whether to take your baby to the doctor or even an urgent care center or hospital emergency room. But because RSV can sometimes lead to serious complications, it’s best not to wait too long.
Generally, if symptoms get worse or don’t improve with home care, you should get medical attention. Start by calling your child’s doctor. Describe the symptoms and when they started. You may be advised to change your home care routine to see if that makes a difference. The doctor may suggest bringing the baby to the office or taking them to an urgent care center or emergency room. If you don’t know whether your baby has RSV, a common cold, the flu, or other respiratory problem, always use caution.
If your child has other medical conditions and sees other specialists, talk with them, too.
Signs that your baby’s condition may be growing more serious include:
A hard time breathing
If your baby’s breathing becomes fast or if you notice that they’re having to use more muscles in their belly area to inhale, then get to an emergency room as soon as possible. Other concerning signs include:
- Flaring nostrils
- Grunting or wheezing with each breath
- Lips starting to turn pale or blue (a sign of a low blood oxygen levels)
In the hospital, a doctor may give your baby oxygen to ease their breathing troubles. Additional oxygen goes through nasal prongs (small tubes) until your child can breathe normally on their own.
Your doctor may also prescribe bronchodilator medications to help open your child’s airways. The medicine is given as a fine mist through an inhaler or a mask that fits over the child’s nose and mouth. For very serious cases, a ventilator may be necessary to help your child breathe.
A baby with RSV may eat and drink a lot less than usual, and that could cause dehydration. Signs of dehydration include dry mouth, sunken eyes, and a lot of fussiness. You may also notice your baby is sluggish.
You can also check your baby’s diaper regularly. Normally, an infant pees every few hours. If you notice a dry diaper when it would normally be wet, take that as a sign that your baby may be getting dehydrated.
If it appears your child is dehydrated, an IV of fluids containing electrolytes in the hospital can help in a hurry.
Pain and high fever
If your baby’s fever gets worse and can’t be controlled by over-the-counter medications, get to the doctor soon. RSV can cause ear infections and sinus infections, which can be painful for babies. If you see your child tug or touch their ear, or become suddenly uncomfortable lying flat or on one side, the problem could be an ear infection. Pus or fluid draining from the ear is also a sign of an ear infection.
Be Watchful and Patient
Some of the most important things you can do if your infant has an RSV infection are to pay close attention to any change in symptoms and respond quickly. Keep your child’s doctor informed, and don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Like many other viral infections, RSV usually has to run its course. It can’t be treated or cured with medication. Because it’s not a bacterial infection, antibiotics won’t help. Instead, focus on trying to keep your baby as comfortable as possible. You may have some long days and nights ahead, but with rest, fluids, and care for congestion and fever, your baby should get better soon.
And even though it’s possible to be reinfected with the virus, the symptoms are often milder than the first bout with RSV.
Photo Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc. / Thinkstock
American Lung Association: “RSV Treatment and Prevention.”
CDC: “RSV in Infants and Young Children.”
Cedars-Sinai: “Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children.”
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: “How to treat RSV at home and when to go to the doctor.”
Mayo Clinic: “Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).”
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 and When to See a Doctor.”
UnityPoint Health: “How to Spot the Signs of an Ear Infection in a Baby.”