As children return to school and daycare, a lesser-known contagious respiratory infection has begun to spread at an alarming rate. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a seasonal illness that has been commonly overlooked even though it affects about 97% of children by the age of two. This is because the symptoms are similar to that of the common cold and are normally mild. But for some, RSV can be severe and even life threatening. Severe RSV can be unprredictable. In fact, every year an estimated 58,000 children five and under are hospitalized and RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization in all infants.
“I have a great pediatrician, but I don’t remember getting any information about RSV until we were on our way to the hospital in an ambulance,” Meghan recalls. “When you take baby care classes before your child is born, they talk about the vaccinations that your family should have before they are around the newborn. So, I had flu and whooping cough on my mind, but I had never heard of RSV because it wasn’t mentioned at all.”
Meghan’s 5-week-old daughter began showing signs of respiratory illness while celebrating Christmas with family. Meghan remembers that her son and some of the other kids at the party had runny noses, but since this is a common occurrence for toddlers, she thought nothing of it. “When she started showing symptoms, I just thought it was a common cold, no big deal. But she was so congested! I had to use a snot sucker every few minutes. Then she started acting kind of out of it, and she looked very uncomfortable, not like herself,” Meghan said. “I took her temperature and she had spiked a 102-degree fever.”
Contact your child’s healthcare provider right away if your child:
- Is having trouble breathing
- Has poor appetite or decreased activity level
- Has cold symptoms that worsen
- Has a shallow cough that continues through the day and night
- Experiences any symptoms that are new or worrisome to you
Meghan took her to urgent care, where they ran a bunch of tests including one for RSV which came back positive. Meghan had no idea what that meant. It was clear, however, as the medical team jumped to call an ambulance and rush her sick child to the hospital, that it was serious. “So, I Google searched. I read everything I could find about RSV, and I was surprised that I had never heard of it before. It was all over message boards about child illness and all over Facebook,” she remembers.
At the hospital, Meghan’s daughter spent the next 48 hours hooked up to an IV and received supplemental oxygen. During this time, the doctors continued to clear out the mucus in her nasal passages and monitor her progress while Meghan struggled to identify why the disease had progressed so severely. Her daughter was not considered a high-risk baby, and she did not have any condition that caused a compromised immune system. Meghan, like many new parents, was shocked to learn that for every 100 infants under six months of age diagnosed with RSV, one or two of them will end up hospitalized with severe illness.
So, two days later, when Meghan was told she could take her child home but to monitor symptoms closely, she had a million questions. “I had a follow up with a pediatrician and I asked questions about how much saline I should be using and how often I should be suctioning her nose at home,” Meghan explained.
“When you are a new parent, you ask questions about everything. But with your second kid, you don’t want to be that crazy person calling about every single thing, but I also didn’t want to ignore something because this felt very serious,” Meghan remembers. “I wanted to know how long the lingering symptoms would last and at what point a I should seek medical care.”
Additionally, she worried about whether or not her son, who went to daycare and would often come home with sniffles, should be isolated from the baby while sick. “Eventually she started acting like herself again and she is healthy now, but I still worry about what will happen if she gets it again.”
Unfortunately, this is a common story for many parents whose young children are diagnosed with RSV. This is why it is so important to educate yourself and the people around your new baby on ways to prevent the spread of respiratory infections – namely properly washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes and staying distanced when sick. You should talk to your healthcare provider about respiratory disease signs and symptoms to watch for and what steps you should take when your baby becomes ill. This is especially important if you have contact with an infant or young child that has chronic lung or heart disease, a weakened immune system, or have neuromuscular disorders.
Visit our RSV pages to learn more about the most common symptoms and prevention tips.
Blog last updated: November 4, 2021