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Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

October 26, 2022
Kids and RSV: What Parents Should Know
Kids and RSV: What Parents Should Know

Many parts of the country, including Arizona, are seeing high numbers of cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). In Arizona, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we typically saw RSV cases surge in late November to December and continue into the spring months. RSV cases were low during the first year of the pandemic. However, in 2021, RSV cases surged much earlier in the season, and the same trend is repeating this year.

We spoke to Dr. Wassim Ballan, division chief of infectious diseases at Phoenix Children’s, on what parents need to know about RSV and kids.

What is RSV?

RSV is a contagious, seasonal respiratory infection. It is common in childhood but can affect adults as well. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis – inflammation of the small airways in the lungs.

How is RSV spread?

RSV is spread through close contact. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, they release large particles carrying the virus, that can then get into someone else’s body through the eyes, nose or mouth. It can also spread by touching an object or surface the virus has landed on, and then touching your face.

For these reasons, RSV can spread rapidly through schools and daycare centers. Babies can get RSV from older siblings who bring it home from school.

How common is RSV?

RSV is extremely common. Most children have had RSV at least once by age two. Most experience it as a mild common cold, but some kids under the age of two and especially under the age of one will have lower respiratory symptoms like wheezing and difficulty breathing.

RSV is typically seen in late fall through early spring months. Mask wearing and physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic are likely the reasons for a low number of RSV cases in the 2020-2021 winter season.

As people gather in person more, and protective measures implemented during the pandemic are relaxed, we are seeing an uptick in RSV among children. It is important to practice preventative measures such as covering coughs and sneezes with elbows or by wearing a mask, handwashing and staying home when sick.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Most of the time, RSV causes minor upper respiratory cold-like symptoms. In some children, the infection can cause lower respiratory (bronchiolitis) symptoms that require hospitalization and intensive care. Common symptoms of RSV to look out for include:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Mild headache
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Sneezing and coughing
  • Tiredness
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Difficult or labored breathing (belly breathing)

How is RSV diagnosed?

If you suspect your child has RSV, contact their pediatrician. Warning signs may be labored breathing, wheezing or fever. Pediatricians may order a chest X-ray or other tests including nasal fluids.

How is RSV treated?

RSV goes away on its own, but it might take a couple weeks for your child to feel better. There is no specific treatment for RSV, but there are some things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable at home. These include managing fever and pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen; offering plenty of fluids; and checking with your child’s doctor before providing any nonprescription cold medicines.

In most cases of RSV in children, hospitalization isn’t necessary, and caregivers can treat children at home. Sometimes, doctors will prescribe medicine to help open a child’s airways if they are having an asthma attack triggered by RSV.

Why are some children hospitalized for RSV?

In young children – especially those under 6 months of age, those with pre-existing health conditions or those who were born prematurely – RSV can be more serious and lead to bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs, or pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.

Sometimes children will require hospitalization for RSV if they are dehydrated or having trouble breathing.

How can parents protect their children from RSV?

To protect yourself from viruses including RSV, please wash your hands, stay home and wear a mask around other people – especially infants – if you’re sick.

Does RSV affect adults?

Adults can get RSV, but it usually appears as a mild cold in most. However, the elderly can have severe infection from RSV as well. It is possible for adults to pass RSV onto their children and babies.

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