Respiratory syncytial virus, more commonly known as RSV, can very easily be confused for a cold. If a child wakes up in the night with a cough, fever, stuffy nose and crankiness, it’s not unusual for a parent to diagnose this as just another cold.

However, an estimated 57,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized annually due to a respiratory syncytial virus infection, making it imperative you know the difference between RSV and the common cold. But what exactly is the difference of RSV and the common cold?

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Who’s At Risk Of Getting RSV?

For most infants and children, RSV will do no more than produce symptoms of the common cold. But for very young infants, children with chronic lung or heart disease, children with a weakened respiratory syncytial virus immune system and children with neuromuscular disorders, RSV can turn into bronchiolitis or even pneumonia.


Is RSV Contagious?

This virus enters the body via the eyes, nose or mouth. A highly contagious virus, RSV is spread via contaminated droplets any time someone who is infected coughs or sneezes. The virus can also survive on countertops, doorknobs, hands and clothing, making it very easy to spread.

Once someone at your child’s school gets respiratory syncytial virus, it can spread very quickly throughout the classroom. In fact, most children are infected with RSV at least one time before they turn two years old.


What Are The Symptoms Of RSV?

It is crucial to catch RSV symptoms as early as possible in an effort to minimize effects. Early symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus include runny nose, decrease in appetite and a cough that could lead to wheezing. Some children may also experience a mild headache and sore throat.

In severe cases of RSV, the infection can spread into the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia or bronchitis. When this happens, your child may experience a severe cough, rapid or difficulty breathing, high-grade fever, wheezing and, in some severe cases, a bluish tint to the skin due to lack of oxygen.


When Should You See A Doctor For RSV?

If your child has developed RSV and begins to have difficulty breathing, a high fever nasal discharge that is thick, shows signs of dehydration or a cough that continues to worsen. In addition to the symptoms mentioned, you should seek immediate medical care if your infant seems irritable or inactive, or is refusing to breastfeed.


How Is RSV Diagnosed?

If a doctor suspects your child’s illness is respiratory syncytial virus, he or she will want to listen closely to your child’s lungs with a stethoscope to determine if there is any wheezing or other abnormal sounds.

Normally, there are no laboratory or imaging tests needed; however, in some cases they may help diagnose any complications of RSV. A doctor may recommend one or more of the following tests if RSV is suspected:

  • A blood test that will check white cell counts
  • Lab tests that will look for viruses, bacteria and other germs
  • X-rays of the chest to check for lung inflammation
  • Swab of secretions from inside the mouth or nose to look for signs of a virus
  • Monitoring of the skin (known as pulse oximetry) to check for abnormal levels of oxygen in the blood


How Is RSV Treated?

If your child has contracted respiratory syncytial virus, there are a few things you can do to help him or her recover quickly. Make sure your child is staying hydrated first and foremost. Have your child blow their nose regularly and give him or her pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen when needed. (It’s important you don’t give your child aspirin as it’s been linked to several different diseases.)

If your child is unable to blow his or her nose, the most effective treatment is a nasal saline irrigation and suction. Finally, a cool-mist vaporizer can help your child breathe better during the dry winter months. It’s important that your child stay away from secondhand cigarette smoke, which can aggravate symptoms.


Are There Complications Of RSV?

In some severe cases, children with respiratory syncytial virus may require hospitalization. This is typically in cases where doctors want to monitor and treat breathing difficulty or administer intravenous fluids.

Pneumonia and bronchitis can also be a complication of RSV if the virus spreads to the lower respiratory tract. If your child’s lungs become inflamed, it can be quite serious and should be address by a doctor immediately.

There have also been noted links between RSV and middle ear infections if the germs are able to enter the space behind the eardrums. Typically this happens with infants and young children.

It is common for those with RSV to get the infection a second time. For children, symptoms tend to be less severe the second time around and often mimic the common cold. However, repeated infections in adults or those with chronic heart or lung disease can be much more serious.


How To Prevent RSV

If your child is at a heightened risk for RSV, there are a few things you can do to keep him or healthy, especially during the fall, winter and early spring when RSV is most common.

  • Have your child wash his or her hands regularly. Proper hand washing lasts 20 seconds and includes warm water and soap.
  • Avoid being in close contact with sick people. RSV is extremely contagious, so telling your child to not share utensils or eat after other children is very important.
  • Clean all surfaces in your home regularly. This includes objects that are touched regularly such as toys, doorknobs, etc.

If you believe your child is suffering from RSV, our board certified pediatricians at Medical City Children’s Urgent Care are here for you.

Sickness is never on your schedule, that’s why we’re open late 7 days a week.

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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you or your child.

tags: pediatrics