Preterm babies are at a higher risk for RSV

October 27, 2021

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. It’s so common that most babies get it before the age of 2. October is RSV Awareness Month, so read on to learn more about this virus and how it can be especially harmful to preterm babies.

RSV can be more severe for preterm babies

Your baby can get RSV at any time of year, but it’s most common from November to April. Most healthy children get mild, cold-like symptoms. But RSV can be more serious in young babies, especially those born preterm (particularly those born before 29 weeks), low birthweight or with lung problems, heart problems or other chronic illnesses.

RSV can cause bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. About 2 out of every 100 children younger than 6 months with an RSV infection will need to be hospitalized.

Research has shown that preterm babies who get RSV are three times more likely to die from the virus than full-term babies. And, preterm babies with RSV have a higher risk of needing to be hospitalized, needing to be cared for in an intensive care unit (ICU) and a higher rate of respiratory failure.

Recognizing the symptoms of RSV

RSV may not be severe when it first starts. However, the symptoms may get worse a few days later. In very young infants (less than 6 months old), the only symptoms may be:

  • Irritability
  • Sluggish or being inactive
  • Decreased appetite
  • Pauses while breathing

Other signs and symptoms of RSV include:

  • Dry cough
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Wheezing

How can you help protect your baby from RSV?

You can protect your baby from RSV by:

  • Keeping your baby away from people who are sneezing or coughing
  • Making sure everyone who touches the baby has clean hands
  • Keeping your baby away from crowds of people
  • Keeping up with your and your baby’s vaccinations
  • Breastfeeding, which gives your baby unique antibodies to prevent and fight infections
  • Not allowing anyone to smoke near your baby
  • Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and throwing out used tissues right away
  • Washing toys regularly and making sure kitchen and bathroom countertops, doorknobs and handles are clean
  • Not sharing drinking glasses with other people

There is no specific treatment for RSV. Most infections go away on their own in a week or two. Researchers are working to develop vaccines and medicines to fight the virus. Babies who are at high risk from severe RSV may benefit from medication that helps prevent severe infection. This medication is called palivizumab. It’s given in monthly injections during the fall and winter months. However, the medication can’t help cure or treat children who already have severe RSV or prevent mild infection.

RSV and COVID-19

When people began wearing masks and staying socially distant for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in 2020, the number of cases of RSV dropped. But once safety measures were relaxed in spring 2021, the number of RSV cases began to increase again.

Because RSV and COVID-19 are respiratory viruses, the symptoms of both viruses can be similar. And, having RSV may increase the risk of getting COVID-19. If your baby has the symptoms of a respiratory illness, your provider may recommend testing for COVID-19.