Tis’ the season for twinkling lights, traveling, and time with family. But, unfortunately, all of the time indoors together to escape the cold can put little ones at risk for infections. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a particularly common virus that causes respiratory illnesses that affect the lungs, throat, and nose. Although it can affect adults too, especially the elderly, most babies will already have had RSV at least once before they reach age two.

RSV season starts around late fall and lasts through early spring. Which means that during the holidays, it is in full swing. So, keep reading for everything you need to know about respiratory syncytial virus characteristics, contagiousness, how to prevent RSV in babies, treatment, and when to take your little one to the hospital.


RSV typically causes a cold and can develop into bronchiolitis (a common respiratory infection, especially among infants) or pneumonia. While for most healthy children symptoms are mild and last about a week, it is possible to get very sick and even require hospitalization. If you suspect your child has RSV, contact your pediatrician to make a diagnosis. They can analyze symptoms, conduct a physical exam, and might even perform an RSV test. In more serious cases a chest x-ray or oxygen saturation test can also be conducted to detect severity of congestion in the lungs.


Is RSV contagious? Just like a cold, RSV spreads from person to person through the nose, eyes, contact with bodily fluids, hands, objects, and through the air. RSV can stay put on hands for over 30 minutes and on objects such as doorknobs and toys for over 5 hours. If your child comes into contact with the virus, you are likely to notice symptoms within 8 days. Once infected, a person is expected to be contagious for as little as 3 days or as many as 28 days for babies with weak immune systems. Even without visible symptoms, a person can still be contagious. And, even after recovery, a person can contract RSV more than once within the same season.


Generally, kids will experience typical cold symptoms such as cough, runny nose, sneezing, congestion, decreased appetite, and fever. However, if RSV develops into bronchiolitis they can experience more severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing. This can look like wheezing, straining, grunting, rapid breathing, or using more of the body (belly, nostrils, head) for breathing. In rare, severe cases a small number of babies require hospitalization. If your child experiences any difficulty breathing, dehydration, changes in the color of lips or skin, high fever, they are not improving after a week, or other concerning symptoms, call your pediatrician as soon as possible or take your baby to the hospital immediately. 


There is currently not a dedicated medicine or cure for RSV. However, you can still help your little one feel better! Start by making sure your child is getting enough fluids and eating or feeding often to stay well nourished. Keep in mind that since it can be more difficult to breathe, it might also make it more difficult to eat. Do your best to clear your child’s nose so that they can breathe more easily while eating. Swap breastfeeding for a bottle when necessary to make it easier for your baby to feed. For children older than 6 months, over-the-counter fever reducers are an option. Talk to your pediatrician about the proper medication and dosage. Be sure to avoid any cough medicine, cold medicine, and aspirin.


One of the best ways to protect your child is by building healthy eating and sleeping habits to keep their immune system as strong as possible. However, just like other viruses, you can take measures to try to avoid catching or spreading RSV. Perhaps the most important is to wash your hands and your child’s regularly, and properly, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You can also clean or disinfect surfaces, objects, and hands often. In addition, you can avoid sharing eating/drinking utensils and limit contact with anyone who might be infected. If your child develops symptoms, keep them away from other children and anyone at risk for more serious illness. 


Currently, there is not a dedicated RSV vaccine. However, staying up to date on other vaccinations is important to protect your child from respiratory illnesses and keep their bodies and immune systems strong and ready to fight a new infection. For infants at a higher risk for a severe infection, your pediatrician might recommend a monoclonal antibody treatment, an injection that might prevent severe RSV infection. If your baby has underlying conditions, talk to your pediatrician about additional steps you can take to protect your little one.

At Coastal Kids Pediatrics, we are passionate about keeping your family as safe and healthy as possible. We know it can be difficult to practice social distancing during peak viral seasons, especially over the holidays. To ease your mind, talk to your knowledgeable Coastal Kids pediatrician about RSV, when to worry, the level of risk your child is at for a serious infection, and what you can do to keep them safe. To make an appointment visit us at www.coastalkids.com. Until then, we wish you a healthy holiday season!