Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Is on the Rise as Winter Approaches

In recent weeks, you may have been hearing about RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus: a fairly common bug that tends to emerge in the wintertime. In fact, most children have been infected with the virus by age 2. For most adults and older, healthy children, RSV symptoms are similar to the common cold and can be treated effectively at home. However, a more severe infection could be a concern for babies under 1 year old – especially premature babies – as well as immunocompromised individuals, those with heart and lung disease, or elderly populations.

As the weather cools down and winter approaches, viruses can be easily transmitted through sniffly noses and sneezes alike – especially as activities move indoors. Here’s what you need to know about RSV to get ready for the months ahead.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Typically starting four to six days after virus exposure, RSV symptoms will appear. The most common signs of RSV in children and adults include:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Sore or scratchy throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache

What about more severe symptoms?

In more serious cases of RSV, the infection can cause complications as it spreads to the lower respiratory tract, leading to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the bronchioles, narrow airway passages entering the lungs. In addition to the initial symptoms above, like fever, these more advanced signs may occur:

  • A harsh cough
  • Wheezing: a high-pitched noise that occurs when one exhales
  • Trouble breathing or rapid breathing
  • Difficulty laying down 
  • Blue-tinted skin appearance, due to the lack of oxygen

It’s true that infants are at a greater risk of contracting severe RSV. Watch for these warning signs and symptoms:

  • Shallow, rapid breathing or quick breaths
  • Difficulty breathing, which can be spotted by observing whether the chest muscles and skin pull in as the child breathes
  • Cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Extreme fatigue (lethargy) or disinterest in playing
  • Unusual fussiness 

Is it RSV or COVID-19?

Although RSV has been a known virus for a long time, the pandemic has brought about new challenges due to the overlap in symptoms between RSV and COVID-19. The best course of action to take is always to get a COVID-19 test if you have any sort of respiratory infection, especially because RSV can weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to COVID-19. In addition, having these infections simultaneously can amplify the severity of COVID-19’s effects. 

Do I need to see a doctor?

It’s recommended that children or anyone with risk factors for severe RSV, seeks immediate medical attention if advanced symptoms start to develop. Signs like trouble breathing, high-grade fever or blue color on the skin (especially the lips and nail beds) require medical intervention as soon as possible.

What causes RSV? 

RSV usually enters the body through the eyes, nose or mouth, and it’s highly contagious. Spreading easily through the air, someone with RSV coughing or sneezing near you is all it takes to become infected. It can also pass through direct contact, like a handshake. 

The virus is able to live for hours on surfaces, from cribs to toys, so the chance of transmission this way is also high. During the first week, an infected person is at their most contagious state. That said, infants and anyone with a weakened immune system can actually spread the virus for up to four weeks, even if they’re no longer showing symptoms. 

What complications might arise?

Most healthy people will recover from RSV without incident. But in vulnerable populations, a severe infection could lead to:

  • A hospital stay to monitor symptoms and administer IV fluids
  • The virus causing complications like pneumonia or bronchiolitis, particularly in infants
  • Middle ear infection in babies and younger children
  • Severe RSV as a child could increase your chances of developing asthma
  • Repeat infections, even within the same RSV season. Repeat symptoms typically aren’t as severe, but could be for older adults or those with chronic conditions.

How can I prevent RSV?

At this time, there’s no vaccine for RSV, but these habits can help lower your risk of contracting or spreading the disease:

  • Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly
  • Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
  • Limiting contact with those who have fevers or colds
  • Regularly cleaning surfaces including countertops, doorknobs and handles
  • Don’t share beverages with others
  • Don’t smoke – if you do smoke, avoid enclosed areas like your home or vehicle
  • Clean toys regularly, especially when your child is sick.

Does anything help protect against serious complications from RSV?

For some infants and children under 2 years of age who are at risk of developing severe RSV, the protective medication palivizumab (Synagis) can be administered as an injection. The typical criteria for high-risk children includes those who:

  • Were born prematurely
  • Have chronic lung disease
  • Are diagnosed with certain heart defects
  • Are immunocompromised

The shot is given throughout RSV season, with the first injection coming at the start. After that, monthly injections are given to help prevent an infection from occurring. It’s important to note that this treatment is not effective if the patient already has an active RSV infection. It’s also not recommended for healthy children and adults. Your child’s doctor can help you determine if your child is a good candidate for this treatment.

It’s starting to get chillier outdoors – which means it will be easier for viruses to spread from person to person. But, rest assured. Taking these precautions can help you and your loved ones be better prepared as temperatures drop.

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