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“Top Chef Junior” host Vanessa Lachey is on a mission to raise awareness about the dangers RSV can pose and the increased risk babies face during cold and flu season. Getty Images
  • RSV is a highly contagious seasonal virus contracted by almost every single baby by the age of 2.
  • RSV leads to 16 times more hospitalizations than the flu in infants younger than 1 year old.
  • Severe cases of RSV are the leading cause of hospitalizations for babies during their first year of life.

Vanessa and Nick Lachey packed up their family of five and set off to Ohio to celebrate Nick’s grandma’s 90th birthday.

“You don’t miss that. We wanted to be there to celebrate with her and have her love on her great-grandkids,” Vanessa Lachey told Healthline.

However, when they got to Ohio, their son, Phoenix, who was 1 year old at the time, began acting ill.

“Even though he was a preemie, he was always so full of life and so happy, but he got really lethargic,” Lachey said.

After discovering he had a temperature, she gave him over-the-counter medication. When his temperature didn’t lower after a few days, she called Phoenix’s doctor, who suggested Lachey take him to a local pediatrician.

“I took him to the doctor there and I asked her specifically, ‘Do you think this is RSV?’ I had heard those letters, but didn’t know what it was,” Lachey said.

After listening to Phoenix’s breathing, the doctor believed he was fine.

The Lacheys had plans to fly to the Bahamas to continue their trip, so after seeing the pediatrician, they got on the plane.

“If I had known it was a virus you could swab for… if I had educated myself to ask more questions, I feel like I would have been more prepared,” Lachey said.

When they arrived in the Bahamas, Phoenix’s breathing worsened. He remained lethargic, and his lips began turning blue.

The Lacheys immediately visited a doctor. He said he didn’t have the capability to test for RSV, but still gave them medicine for his symptoms.

Despite taking the medicine, Phoenix showed no signs of improvement.

The following morning, Vanessa told Nick they needed to head home.

“There were no flights out, and so we found a plane and salvaged every penny we could to get back to the United States to get proper healthcare,” Lachey said.

As soon as they arrived, the Lacheys took Phoenix to an urgent care facility, where he was immediately diagnosed with RSV and admitted to the hospital for 6 days. He received oxygen treatments hourly.

“His little body had to fight, and it had gone on for so long. Those were the hardest 6 days, next to him being born prematurely and being in the NICU. Seeing him in the PICU a year later was pretty traumatic for not only me but my family and husband, and trying to explain it our other kids,” Lachey said.

Phoenix fully recovered from RSV after his hospital stay and is thriving as a toddler. But Lachey’s frightening experience has inspired her to warn other parents about the dangers of the virus.

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It’s the most common respiratory pathogen in infants and young children worldwide. Most children contract it during their first 2 years of life. However, the clinical presentation varies based on the age and comorbidities of the child.

“Infants are more prone to get sick, as their immune system is still immature, and protective maternal antibodies decrease around 2 to 3 months of age. Infants and young children also get sicker, as their airways are smaller, making them more prone to get obstructed by the thick mucus and swelling produced during the RSV infection,” Dr. Katharina Graw-Panzer, pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine, told Healthline.

Premature babies like Phoenix are at greater risk for developing RSV because they have reduced protective antibodies from their mother, which are normally transferred to them during the third trimester of pregnancy.

“The immune system is not yet matured to fight infections. Premature infants also have compromised pulmonary development, and some have developed bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), which increases the risk of hospitalization and death due to RSV,” Graw-Panzer said.

While Lachey doesn’t blame her doctors for her being unaware of RSV, she says more awareness about the severity of the condition is needed.

“With a preemie, I already had a million things going on in my head. When you have a preemie… they’re talking about the physical side of things and the emotional side of things, and there are a lot of risks, but it’s my job as a mommy to ask the questions, and I feel like if I had been armed with knowledge, then I might have asked my pediatrician [about] RSV,” she said.

Dr. Michael Forbes, a pediatric and adolescent intensive care specialist, says many parents with premature babies become overwhelmed with information.

“There’s a lot of information to take in, and what’s important and not important is always a challenge… The preterm infant is very vulnerable to these infections… Keeping baby safe from RSV and other winter viruses should be at the top of a parent’s lists,” Forbes told Healthline.

To raise awareness, Lachey has teamed up with Sobi, an international biopharmaceutical company.

“I don’t want other moms and dads to have to go through that. Instead of sitting here thinking ‘should of, would of, could of,’ I thought I’d be proactive about it. I made it my mission and do my best to spread the word. I’m honored to be partners with Sobi and to get the message out there, to empower people to educate themselves and ask questions and definitely go with their mommy or daddy intuition,” Lachey said.

Signs of RSV in infants may include:

  • fever
  • sneezing and coughing
  • lethargy
  • poor feeding
  • difficulty breathing (such as fast, shallow breathing; nasal flaring; retractions; and wheezing)

Forbes says the symptoms may start as those of a cold, with sneezing or coughing. As symptoms worsen, the baby may have a hard time breathing.

“The baby may breathe faster, take deeper breaths. Their ribs might show more when they breathe. They get exhausted when they eat — can’t finish a bottle or finish nursing — and look more tired than they usually do. Those are all warning signs that the infection has spread to the lungs, and the baby needs to see a physician,” he said.

Severe cases of RSV are the leading cause of hospitalizations for babies during their first year of life, causing 16 times more hospitalizations than the flu.

Taking steps to prevent babies from contracting the virus is crucial.

Graw-Panzer says good hand hygiene is the best defense.

“Such as, to always wash your hands with warm water and soap, or use alcohol-based rubs just before holding your baby or anybody else holding or touching your baby,” she said.

Because RSV can be transmitted from other people sneezing or coughing, Graw-Panzer says avoid close contact with sick people and crowded areas.

“Clean contaminated surfaces, such as door handles, where the virus can survive for up to 6 hours,” she said.

Keeping infants away from people who are sick in the home is also important, notes Forbes. And if other school-aged children are in the home, he says take caution.

“If they go to school or day care and come home, you have to assume they are infected and contagious all winter long. RSV, like many winter viruses, will infect people and make them contagious, but sometimes half or three-quarters of the people who are contagious never get symptoms,” Forbes said.

Graw-Panzer notes there’s a preventive medication (palivizumab) available for infants and young children at highest risk for RSV, and that research for RSV vaccines is currently underway.

When a baby does contract the virus, Graw-Panzer says in-home treatment consists of supportive care, such as relieving nasal obstruction with saline drops and gentle suction, antipyretics for fever, and keeping the baby hydrated.

“Infants with difficulty feeding, respiratory distress, or hypoxemia, however, require hospital admission to ensure appropriate nutrition, oxygen, airway clearance, and respiratory support,” Graw-Panzer said.

Lachey knows this scenario all too well.

“Every parent goes in asking if their baby has the flu. They never go in asking, ‘Does my baby have RSV?'”

Because RSV causes more hospitalizations in infants less than 12 months old than the flu, she says it should be spoken about more often than the flu.

She’s making it her mission to start the conversation.

“I tell mommies about it and friends about it, and I try to be proactive about it on social media. I think we can spread the word and hopefully empower people to educate themselves… and talk to their doctor about it,” Lachey said.

In learning about RSV, she wants parents to understand that the outcome could be life-threatening.

“The thought of that absolutely terrifies me as a mother,” she said. “[The best thing we can do] to help the severity of it would be arm [ourselves] with knowledge.”

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.