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
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.