As a parent, you may have heard of RSV and how it can affect babies. RSV stands for the respiratory syncytial virus, a common respiratory illness affecting many babies and young children. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under one year of age.
Parents need to understand the symptoms of RSV because it can lead to severe respiratory infections that sometimes require hospitalisation. By being aware of the signs of RSV, you can seek medical attention for your baby early and prevent the illness from becoming severe.
By now, most of us know this rule by heart: do not kiss babies — especially newborns — on the mouth, face or hands. Why? Because their immune system is still very fragile and does not protect them from a whopping range of germs that live in an adult’s system. An adult can easily deal with these germs. But a baby cannot.
Almost all children will contract an RSV infection before their 2nd birthday. Usually the symptoms are cold-like and will ease in a week or two.
What is RSV in Babies?
Let’s dive deeper into what RSV is and how it affects babies. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is highly contagious and causes respiratory infections. It’s most common during the winter or rainy season.
RSV can affect anyone, but babies under one are at a higher risk for severe infections. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by the time they are two years old.
When a baby gets RSV, it can cause inflammation in the airways, making it difficult for them to breathe. This can lead to severe respiratory infections, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. In some cases, hospitalisation may be necessary to help the baby breathe.
Certain factors can put a baby at a higher risk for severe RSV infections, such as being born prematurely, having a weakened immune system, or having a heart or lung condition. It’s essential to be aware of these risk factors and the signs of RSV so you can seek medical attention early if needed.
What is an RSV virus?
Now, let’s take a closer look at the RSV virus itself. RSV is a type of virus that belongs to the Paramyxoviridae family. It has two main subtypes, A and B, with subtype A being more common and severe. The virus can spread directly with respiratory secretions, such as saliva, mucus, or nasal secretions, from an infected person. It can also spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.
RSV can live on surfaces for several hours and survive up to six hours on the skin. That’s why good hand hygiene is so important in preventing the spread of RSV. The incubation period for RSV is typically between 4 to 6 days, but symptoms can appear as early as 2 days or as late as 14 days after exposure. The virus can last 1 to 2 weeks, but some symptoms, such as a cough, can persist for several weeks.
It’s important to note that RSV can be contagious even after the symptoms have resolved. So, it’s crucial to practice good hygiene and take preventative measures, such as avoiding close contact with sick individuals, to prevent the spread of RSV.
What Causes RSV in Babies
Certain risk factors can increase a baby’s chances of getting RSV, such as premature birth, weakened immune system, or exposure to secondhand smoke. Babies who attend daycare or have siblings in school are also at a higher risk of contracting RSV.
RSV can be transmitted through direct contact with respiratory secretions, such as saliva, mucus, or nasal secretions, from an infected person. It can also be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.
The virus can be particularly concerning for babies because they have underdeveloped immune systems, which makes them more susceptible to severe respiratory infections. That’s why it’s crucial to take preventative measures, such as practicing good hygiene and avoiding contact with sick individuals, to reduce the risk of RSV in babies.
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Common RSV Symptoms in Babies
Now that we’ve covered what RSV is and how it’s caused, let’s discuss the signs and symptoms of RSV in babies. It’s important to recognise these symptoms early so you can seek medical attention if needed.
Some common symptoms of RSV in babies include:
A baby with RSV may have a nose that runs or is blocked with mucus. This can make breathing difficult for the baby and cause discomfort or fussiness. Parents may notice their baby having trouble nursing or taking a bottle due to nasal congestion.
To relieve congestion, parents can use a bulb syringe to suction out excess mucus or use saline drops to help loosen mucus.
A baby may have a persistent cough, which can be dry or wet. Coughing is a natural reflex that helps to clear the airways of mucus and other irritants. However, a persistent cough can be uncomfortable for a baby and may interfere with sleep and feeding. Parents should contact their healthcare provider if a baby’s cough is severe or lasts for more than a few days.
A baby may frequently sneeze, which can help to clear the nose and airways. Sneezing is a reflex that helps to expel irritants or excess mucus from the nose. While sneezing is usually not a cause for concern, parents should monitor their baby’s other symptoms to ensure they are not developing a more severe respiratory infection.
Additionally, parents should practice good hygiene, such as washing their hands frequently and covering their mouths when coughing or sneezing, to prevent the spread of RSV.
A baby’s temperature may rise above the normal range, indicating a fever. A fever is a sign that the body is fighting an infection, and in the case of RSV, it may indicate that the baby’s immune system is responding to the virus.
A mild fever is usually not a cause for concern. Still, parents should monitor their baby’s temperature and contact their healthcare provider if the fever is high or persists for several days.
Rapid breathing or wheezing
A baby may breathe more quickly than average or have wheezing sounds in their chest. Rapid breathing can signal that the baby is struggling to get enough oxygen, while wheezing is a high-pitched sound indicating narrowed or inflamed airways.
Wheezing and rapid breathing can make it difficult for the baby to breathe and may cause fatigue or weakness. Parents should contact their healthcare provider if they notice these symptoms in their baby.
A baby may have trouble breathing, leading to a rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, or flaring nostrils. In severe cases, a baby may have to work harder to breathe, which can cause the chest to cave in or the skin around the ribs and neck to appear to pull in with each breath.
Difficulty breathing is a severe symptom that requires immediate medical attention. Parents should call their healthcare provider or seek emergency care if they notice these symptoms in their baby.
A baby may have a decreased appetite and refuse to eat or drink as usual. This can be due to congestion or difficulty breathing, making it hard for the baby to swallow. It’s crucial to ensure the baby stays hydrated during this time, and parents may need to offer smaller, more frequent feedings.
Irritability or restlessness
A baby may seem more fussy, irritable, or restless than usual. This can be due to discomfort caused by other RSV symptoms, such as coughing, congestion, or difficulty breathing. Sleep disturbances due to congestion can also make the baby more irritable or restless.
A baby may seem tired or weak and may sleep more than usual. This can be due to the baby’s body fighting off the RSV virus, which can be exhausting. Also, difficulty breathing or decreased appetite can contribute to fatigue or weakness.
Cyanosis (bluish tint to the skin or nails)
In severe cases, a baby’s skin or nails may turn bluish due to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. This can be a life-threatening symptom and requires immediate medical attention. Cyanosis is a sign that the baby is not getting enough oxygen and can be caused by severe respiratory distress due to RSV.
Parents should call or seek emergency medical care if they notice this symptom in their baby.
It’s important to note that RSV symptoms can vary from mild to severe, and not all babies will experience all of these symptoms. Additionally, symptoms may appear differently in premature babies or babies with underlying health conditions.
If you notice any of these symptoms in your baby, it’s essential to contact your healthcare provider right away. They can evaluate your baby’s condition and provide appropriate treatment if necessary.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Parents should seek medical attention for their baby if they notice any signs or symptoms of RSV. It is particularly important to seek medical attention if their baby is experiencing difficulty breathing or has any signs of cyanosis (bluish tint to the skin or nails).
Other signs that parents should seek medical attention for their baby include:
- A high fever (over 100.4°F or 38°C)
- Wheezing or rapid breathing
- A cough that is getting worse
- Signs of dehydration (such as decreased urination or dry mouth)
- Refusing to eat or drink
- Irritability or restlessness that is severe or lasts for a long time
- Signs of lethargy, such as decreased responsiveness or excessive sleeping
Parents should trust their instincts and seek medical attention if concerned about their baby’s health or well-being. It’s always better to err on caution regarding a baby’s health.
Preventing RSV in Babies
Unfortunately, there is still no vaccine to prevent RSV. Neither is there medication to treat the infection. However, there are precautions you and others can take to minimise or avoid the risk of your baby contracting this infection.
- Never let visitors (even if they are family) kiss your newborn on their face or hands, as germs can easily be transferred this way.
- Advise visitors to wash or sanitise their hands before holding or touching your baby.
- If you have a cold, then you too should avoid kissing your baby. Consider wearing a face mask to prevent the infection from spreading through coughing and sneezing to your baby. The same rule applies to other family members with cold symptoms.
- Keep your little one away from crowds.
- Do not permit smoking near your baby.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that often come into contact with hands, such as door knobs and taps.
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As mentioned before, no medication can treat the infection. However, you can help ease your little one’s symptoms while carefully monitoring for severe RSV symptoms (described above).
Make sure you keep your little one hydrated, and if his nose is congested, you could try getting rid of the mucus with a bulb syringe and saline drops.
The RSV virus is notorious for making newborns and young babies very sick — even causing death — and is often transmitted to them by an adult’s contact, usually saliva from a kiss. This is why it’s so important for parents to set firm rules about adult contact with their little ones. It’s also crucial that mums and dads are aware of RSV in baby symptoms.
Updates from Pheona Ilagan
Web MD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mayo Clinic
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