Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a serious infection that can affect people of all ages. But it’s most serious in babies. A baby’s airways aren’t as well-developed, so a baby isn’t able to cough up mucus as well as an older child. In most people, RSV causes cold symptoms, often with a cough.
In babies, RSV can cause a more serious illness called bronchiolitis. Babies with bronchiolitis have wheezing along with their cough.
RSV can lead to other severe infections, including pneumonia. In some cases, babies may need to receive treatment at a hospital.
RSV is a virus, so unfortunately there are no medications that can cure it or shorten its course.
In older children, RSV can cause symptoms similar to that of a cold. But in babies, the virus causes more severe symptoms. RSV is most commonly transmitted from November to April, when cooler temperatures bring people indoors and when they’re more likely to interact with each other.
RSV tends to follow a timeline of symptoms. Anywhere from two to eight days after a baby is exposed to the condition, they may start to experience symptoms. Initial symptoms may not be all that noticeable, such as a decreased appetite or a runny nose. More severe symptoms will appear anywhere from one to three days later.
Symptoms a baby may have with RSV include:
- breathing that is faster than normal
- difficulty breathing
- lethargic or behaving sluggishly
- runny nose
- using their chest muscles to breathe in a way that appears labored
Some babies are more vulnerable to the symptoms of RSV. This includes children who were born prematurely, and/or babies with lung or heart problems.
RSV cases can range from mild cold symptoms to severe bronchiolitis. But if you suspect your baby has RSV, it’s important to call your pediatrician and/or seek emergency medical care.
These symptoms include:
- baby appears dehydrated, such as sunken fontanels (soft spots) and no tear production when they cry
- coughing up thick mucus that is gray, green, or yellow in color
- fever greater than 100.4°F (38°C) in babies younger than 2 months
- fever greater than 101°F (38.3°C) for babies ages 3 to 6 months
- fever greater than 103°F (39.4°C) in babies older than 6 months
- thick nasal discharge that makes it tough for baby to breathe
Seek immediate medical care if your baby’s fingernails or mouth are blue in color. This indicates your baby isn’t getting enough oxygen and is in severe distress.
In the most severe cases, RSV may require the help of a breathing machine known as a ventilator. This machine can help to inflate your baby’s lungs until the virus has had time to go away. Doctors used to (and some still do) treat most cases of RSV with bronchodilators. But this is no longer recommended.
Examples of bronchodilator medications include albuterol, which is under the brand names:
- ProAir HFA
- Ventolin HFA
These are medications used for people with asthma to help open up the airways and treat wheezing, but they do not help the wheezing that comes with RSV bronchiolitis.
If your little one is dehydrated, their doctor may also provide intravenous fluids (IV).
Antibiotics won’t help your baby’s RSV because they treat bacterial infections. RSV is a viral infection.
If your doctor gives you the OK to treat RSV at home, you’ll likely need a few tools. These will keep your baby’s secretions as thin as possible so they don’t affect their breathing.
A bulb syringe
You can use a bulb syringe to clear thick secretions from your baby’s nose.
To use the bulb syringe:
- Compress the bulb until the air is out.
- Place the tip of the bulb in your baby’s nose and let the air out. This will pull mucus in.
- When you remove the bulb, squeeze it onto a cloth or paper towel to clear the bulb.
You should especially use this tool before your baby’s feeding. A clear nose makes it easier for your baby to eat.
Cool mist humidifier
A humidifier can introduce moisture into the air, helping to thin your baby’s secretions. You can purchase cool mist humidifiers online, at most baby stores, and at discount superstores.
Hot water and/or steam humidifiers could be harmful to your baby because they could cause scalding.
You can also talk to your child’s doctor about treating any fevers with acetaminophen (Tylenol). Your doctor will give you a suggested dose based on your baby’s weight. Do not give your baby aspirin, as this can be dangerous to their health.
Providing fluids, such as breast milk or formula, can be important to preventing dehydration in your baby. You can ask your doctor if you should give your baby an electrolyte-replacing solution.
Keep your baby in an upright position, which makes it easier for them to breathe. You can keep your baby in their car seat during the day. At night, you can raise your child’s mattress by about 3 inches. You can place an object underneath your baby’s mattress to keep it higher up. Always place your baby on their back to sleep.
Limiting your baby’s exposure to cigarette smoke is also vital to keeping them healthy. Cigarette smoke can make your baby’s symptoms worse.
When a baby has RSV, they are contagious for three to eight days. The child should be kept separate from other siblings or children in a day care to prevent transmission.
The disease is spread from direct and indirect contact with an infected person. This could include touching the hand of an infected person after they sneeze, then rubbing your eyes or nose. The virus can also live on hard surfaces, such as a crib or toys, for several hours.
Babies can make a full recovery from RSV in one to two weeks. Most babies can recover from RSV without having to receive treatment in a hospital setting. But if you think your baby is dehydrated or in moderate to severe distress, seek emergency medical care.
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