One of the most common risks for premature or medically fragile babies is respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. For most children it can cause nothing more than the common cold. Colds are no fun, but they’re generally not that dangerous. RSV in premature or medically fragile infants can be dangerous and even deadly. While this is very scary, there are steps to take to protect your baby.
What is RSV?
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is highly contagious virus that affects the respiratory tract. It is most common in the fall and winter months, when colds are more prevalent. Generally children get it before the age of two, and they usually recover on their own. However, each year in the United States, RSV leads to more than 58,000 hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old1 and is the leading cause of hospitalizations among children ages 1 – 3.2
Who is at risk for RSV?
Babies under two are most likely to be affected by RSV. However, newborns under 8 to 10 weeks are at most risk. In addition, premature infants, children younger than two with heart or lung problems, and children who are medically fragile are at the greatest risk of infection.
What are the symptoms of RSV?
Since RSV can be mistaken for the common cold, there are important signs to watch out for. In addition to common symptoms such as stuffy nose and cough, be on the lookout for high fever, cough that produces yellow, green, or gray mucus, refusal to feed, or signs of dehydration. If your baby shows any sign of difficulty breathing, bluish tint to their skin, or signs of lethargy you should seek medical attention immediately.
When is RSV season?
RSV season varies according to region, but in most areas, it begins in October and runs through April. You can find out when RSV season is where you live by visiting the Centers for Disease Control’s RSV Surveillance website.
NOTE: According to the CDC, seasonal patterns for RSV in the United States have been disrupted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020. Beginning in the southern region of the United States, RSV circulation began to rise in the spring months of 2021.3 It is too soon to predict when the previous seasonal patterns will return.
How can I prevent RSV?
It may be tempting to lock your baby away from anyone who could pose a threat, but this is not always be feasible. Older siblings still have to go to school, and parents still have to shop or go to work. However, there are some steps you can take to protecting your child from RSV.
- Frequent hand washing. Hand washing and good hygiene go a long way to prevent all types of illnesses.
- Clean contaminated surfaces. Sanitize doorknobs and other possibly contaminated surfaces often, especially if someone is feeling ill.
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, your elbow or your arm, not your hands.
- Isolation or partial isolation. Keep people who are sick away from the baby or ensure they wear a mask. Keep the baby away from smokers, and – if possible – try to avoid daycare and school environments.
- Synagis injections. Synagis injections may help prevent hospitalization from RSV. Talk to your child’s pediatrician to see if they are eligible.
Parents may want to put their babies in a bubble to protect them from the world. Unfortunately that is not really an option. However, with a little knowledge it is possible to protect them and help keep them safe even from unseen dangers of this disease.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory Syncytial Virus Circulation in the United States, July 2016–2017. MMWR. 2018;67(2):71–76
- Parikh, R. C., McLaurin, K. K., Margulis, A. V., Mauskopf, J., Ambrose, C. S., Pavilack, M., & Candrilli, S. D. (2017, December). Chronologic Age at Hospitalization for Respiratory Syncytial Virus Among Preterm and Term Infants in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5700888/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Changes in Influenza and Other Respiratory Virus Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, 2020–2021. MMWR. 2021;70(29):1013–1019.