RSV in babies: Experts share tips to prevent severe illness

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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RSV infection can become serious in infants and young children, but there are ways to protect against severe illness. MaaHoo/Stocksy
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that may cause severe symptoms in infants, young children, and even older adults.
  • RSV is the most common cause of infant hospitalizations in high-income countries.
  • In 2019, about 1.4 million infants ages 0–6 months globally were hospitalized for episodes of RSV-associated acute lower respiratory infection.
  • RSV infection can become serious, but there are ways to protect infants and young children from severe illness.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) commonly presents with cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose and cough.

However, in infants and young children, RSV can be much more severe, leading to hospitalizations and even death. RSV may also cause severe illness among older adults.

RSV is the most common cause of infant hospitalizations in high-income countries.

In 2019, about 6.6 million infants ages 0-6 months globally had RSV-associated acute lower respiratory infection episodes, with 1.4 million needing to be hospitalized and 45,700 RSV-attributable overall deaths.

What can be done to protect infants and small children from severe illness due to RSV? Medical News Today spoke with pediatricians to learn more.

According to Dr. Danelle Fisher, a board certified pediatrician and Chair of Pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, while RSV will cause symptoms of the common cold in older children and adults, it may affect infants and young children differently.

“The younger you are, the more chance you have of this virus causing severe respiratory issues, including wheezing and difficulty breathing,” Dr. Fisher told MNT.

“A lot of times, even the little babies will go apneic, which means they pause or stop breathing for a little while. The younger you are, the more dangerous it can be.”

Dr. Mohamed Zebda, a board certified pediatrician at the UH Health Family Care Center and clinical associate professor at the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine at the University of Houston, explained to MNT:

“Most children have had RSV at least once by the age of 2. Many children will have mild symptoms. Common symptoms include cough, congestion, runny nose, and fever.”

“Infants who are born prematurely, babies who have a history of congenital heart disease, children who are immunocompromised, children who have a history of chronic lung disease, and infants less than 1 year of age have an elevated risk of complications and hospitalization.

Complications of RSV include bronchiolitis — inflammation and irritation of the small airways that lead to narrowing of the airways — and pneumonia.”

— Dr. Mohamed Zebda, board certified pediatrician

RSV spreads both through respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, as well as contaminated surfaces.

“RSV can spread from person to person, just like colds and other respiratory viruses,” Dr. Kris Bryant, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Norton Children’s in Louisville, Kentucky, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases explained to MNT.

“The virus can also live on hard surfaces for many hours, and touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth is one way infections can occur,” Dr. Bryant continued.

“RSV can also live on hands for 30 minutes or more, so handwashing is important in reducing the spread of this virus.”

“RSV is spread when a baby inhales droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze,” added Dr. Moses Olorunnisola, a pediatrician with Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health Medical Group in New Jersey.

“A baby can also contract RSV from direct contact — if an infected person kisses them on the face, for example. Additionally, If a baby touches a toy or surface that is contaminated, and then touches his or her eyes, mouth, or nose, they can contract RSV,” Dr. Olorunnisola continued.

“The problem with this virus is that it spreads very quickly throughout places where children are,” Dr. Fisher said. “If you have multiple children in the family, oftentimes the older kids who go to preschool, daycare, or elementary school will bring it home to their baby siblings and that is a big mode of transmission.”

— Dr. Danelle Fisher, board certified pediatrician

Dr. Zebda said there are several ways to help minimize a baby’s exposure to RSV.

“Good hand hygiene can help reduce the spread of RSV,” he explained. “(Make) sure that surfaces, including toys, are disinfected. It is recommended to cover coughs and sneezes. (Make) sure visitors coming to see the baby are not sick. Outside visitors should avoid holding and kissing the baby,” Dr. Zebda noted.

“To the extent feasible, parents should keep their babies away from people with cold and flu symptoms and avoid crowds during RSV season,” Dr. Bryant added.

“For my families who have children in day care and preschool, during RSV season, which is usually October through April, I often advise that when these children come home from day care or preschool, the families kind of wash them down,” Dr. Fisher said.

“They could even do their bath or at the very least washing hands and face and changing clothes can minimize the spread,” Dr. Fisher continued.

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