It’s a scene familiar to most parents: You are woken up in the middle of the night to your child, standing next to your bed, sniffling and coughing, complaining of feeling hot and sick. You listen to your child’s cough, touch the back of your hand to their forehead and conclude they are ill, likely with a respiratory illness. Is it just a cold, or could it be something more serious?
What Is RSV?
Every year, millions of children will be diagnosed with a respiratory illness. From RSV to the flu to croup and whooping cough, childhood respiratory illness is common and treatable.
“Right now we’re seeing a lot of flu,” says Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a pediatrician and national medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association, “but there are a lot of viruses going around right now, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV can give babies a lot of problems.” RSV-related infections in children younger than five years of age account for more than 2 million visits to the doctor or the emergency room each year. RSV will infect almost all children during the first two years of age, and most cases will have only minor symptoms.
RSV is a virus that is passed from person to person and can survive for at least 30 minutes on hands and for several hours on hard surfaces like tables and countertops, so it is very important to keep your and your child’s hands clean.
Your child may have RSV if they are exhibiting symptoms such as nasal congestion, runny nose, mild cough and low-grade fever. If your child is having trouble breathing, is not eating or has cold symptoms that have become severe, such as a shallow cough that continues through the day and night, then it is time to see a doctor.
How to Cope with Croup
If you notice your child has an unusual cough, but it isn’t followed by the telltale hollow whoop of pertussis and instead sounds like a seal or a bark, then they may have croup.
Croup is an infection that causes swelling around the vocal cords. This illness is most common in the fall and winter and usually affects children under the age of five. Croup is usually caused by viruses such as the common cold and RSV.
Most cases of croup are mild enough to be treated at home and will disappear in a week or two. If your child is not having difficulty breathing, using a cool mist humidifier may help to relieve symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help to ease your child’s discomfort, but cough medication should only be given under the direction of a doctor.
On the other hand, if your child’s croup is causing them to have trouble breathing, lasts longer than one week, is accompanied by a fever higher than 103 degrees or is reoccurring, then it is time to see a doctor. In severe cases of croup, the doctor may administer a steroid injection to help open your child’s airways and in very extreme cases a breathing tube will be used.
You can help protect your child from getting croup by helping them wash their hands frequently and avoiding people who are sick.
Fighting the Flu
Each year, millions of children will contract the flu. The flu, or influenza virus, is an illness that affects the nose, upper airways, throat and lungs. The flu is highly contagious and can be spread through bodily fluids, such as mucus and saliva, that easily get into the air when you sneeze or cough.
If your child is presenting symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle pain, dry cough, chills, sore throat, nasal congestion, fatigue or an upset stomach, they may have the flu. In children, fevers from the flu typically result in higher temperatures than in adults, around 103 to 105 F. Infected persons are contagious one day before symptoms appear and five to seven days after becoming ill.
Dr. El-Hasan say that to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses “kids have to promote good handwashing, should not share drinks or utensils, and parents should keep their kids home from school if they have fever.”
This is because the virus lives on surfaces and can be spread through the air, so it is also important to encourage your child to cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing and wash their hands frequently.
In order to protect your child from the flu, Dr. El-Hasan recommends taking them to get a flu vaccine every year. “With all my heart I recommend vaccines,” he says. “It’s a very serious issue. Yes, the flu vaccine does not always 100% match the influenza strains people get. But, even if that’s the case, in many instances the vaccine will at least take the edge off or reduce the severity of the symptoms.”
All children 6 months and older can receive a flu shot. Dr. El-Hasan also recommends that parents receive flu vaccines. “All parents—everyone—should receive vaccines,” he says. “You are protecting everyone around you when you get vaccinated. Studies show that one-third of people with the flu don’t show symptoms. Vaccines will help reduce this number.” To find a flu vaccine near you, visit the Flu Vaccine Finder.
If you believe your child has the flu, see a healthcare professional as soon as possible. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral that will help relieve your child’s flu symptoms if taken within a day or two of getting sick.
The CDC estimates that over 10 million children were affected by the flu in 2018 and about 50,000 children were hospitalized due to complications from the illness that year. Taking steps to protect your child through vaccination and hygiene will help greatly reduce their chances of developing serious flu symptoms. Dr. El-Hasan says that “the best preventive care is a healthy lifestyle. Make sure you eat well, rest and take care of your body.”
It can be concerning when your child is ill with a respiratory illness. However, illnesses such as RSV, , croup and the flu are common and treatable. Taking the necessary steps to prevent catching the illness, as well as proper care if illness does occur, will keep your child safe and healthy.
Blog last updated: August 21, 2023