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RSV: The Most Common Virus You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Most pediatricians and those of us who study and treat respiratory viruses in children often say that respiratory syncytial virus is the most common illness that no one knows about. Called RSV for short, the virus infects almost every child at least once before the age of 2. Why, then, haven’t you heard of it?

Initially, the symptoms of RSV are very similar to those of a cold or influenza—coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever, breathing difficulties, irritability and loss of appetite. And in most cases, children infected with the virus recover on their own in a week or so.

But 144,000 infants and young children in the U.S. end up in the hospital each year with pneumonia or bronchiolitis caused by severe RSV infection. In fact, worldwide, RSV is the most common reason for infant hospitalizations.

How do you know if your child’s cold or flu may be something more serious? Infants and children with RSV usually show symptoms within four to six days of infection. Most will recover in one week.

If the symptoms last longer or if you think your child’s condition is worsening, you should see a doctor. This is especially true for children under the age of 2, who have a higher risk of RSV infection, and for infants younger than 1 month of age, since they can develop apnea. There are a number of different tests that can screen for the virus by looking for evidence of the infection in a nasal swab.

There is no treatment for RSV, but doctors may recommend medicines to treat the symptoms. If your child is hospitalized, he or she may need supplemental oxygen and suctioning of the airways to remove the mucus and respiratory secretions. In severe cases, your child may need a

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ventilator to assist with breathing.

At Nationwide Children’s Hospital, we are doing research on how RSV evades the immune response and causes severe disease. Our goal is to develop a vaccine for the virus. Until then, you can reduce the risk of infection to you and your child by washing your hands frequently and wiping hard surfaces with soap and water or disinfectant. If you or others who spend time with you child have cold-like symptoms, avoid sharing cups or utensils and postpone giving your little one any kisses until the symptoms have gone.

As a pediatrician, I have seen hundreds of infants with RSV. And, unfortunately, until we develop a vaccine to prevent this common and potentially severe infection, I am afraid I will continue to see many sick babies every winter.

 

Asuncion Mejias, MD, PhD
Asuncion Mejias, MD, PhD, is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist in the Center for Vaccines and Immunity in The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She is also assistant professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. She has been studying the pathogenesis of respiratory viral infections, including RSV, for the past 13 years.

2 thoughts on “RSV: The Most Common Virus You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

  1. Juanell on said:

    I definitely know about this virus. My baby had it when she was only 2 months old. It was horrible. I had to stay awake most of the night and prop her up on a pillow to make sure she didn’t choke on her own mucus, and she had to have breathing treatments. Then when she was a year old, she had it again and developed asthma. She was in the hospital for that, and has been in the hospital for asthma again since then. Any parent who doesn’t know anything about RSV should learn because it is very dangerous. The doctor said that if I had not caught it when I did, she would have been in the hospital with it the first time like so many others around here. I am just glad that she survived and is 3 now and has finally grown out of that asthma, although when she gets sick, we have to give her breathing treatments most of the time.

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