Protect your baby from viruses like COVID-19, RSV and the flu

November 24, 2020

As we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve now entered the time of year when other respiratory viruses are more common, too. Influenza (flu) viruses are most common during the fall and winter. And respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is most common during the fall, winter and spring.

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV is a common virus that affects the lungs and breathing. Almost everyone gets RSV by the time they are 2 years old. It usually causes mild symptoms like having a cold. Symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Fever
  • Decrease in activity
  • Being irritable

Sometimes RSV can be more serious in babies, especially premature babies (born before 37 weeks of pregnancy). RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia (infection in the lungs) in babies younger than 1 year of age in the U.S.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 and flu?

The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of flu. Both COVID-19 and flu can have these symptoms:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people have vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than adults

COVID-19 can also cause a loss of taste or smell. It seems to spread more easily than flu, and it can take longer for infected people to show symptoms. COVID-19 also seems to cause more serious illness in some people than the flu.

Are some babies at higher risk for respiratory viruses?

It’s especially important to protect babies from respiratory viruses because their immune system is still developing. Your immune system protects your body from infection. Babies also have smaller airways for breathing, so they may be more likely to have breathing problems with a respiratory virus. Some babies may be at higher risk for respiratory viruses or at higher risk of serious illness with a respiratory virus:

COVID-19. Some data shows that babies age 1 and under are at higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19 than older children. Babies who have other medical conditions or who are premature also may be more likely to have serious illness from COVID-19.

RSV. Babies at high risk for severe illness with RSV include premature babies, babies younger than 6 months old and babies or young children who have lung or heart problems or other chronic (long-term) health conditions. 

Flu. The flu can be dangerous for all babies, even healthy babies. Babies and children younger than 5 years old – and especially those younger than 2 years old – are more likely than older children to have complications from the flu. Premature babies also are at increased risk of serious complications from the flu.

Babies who were in the NICU are also more likely than other babies to get infections.

How can you protect your baby from respiratory viruses?

A baby can get a respiratory virus by being in close contact with an infected person. This includes the baby’s parents or other caregivers. You can also get infected by touching surfaces with virus on them and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

During the fall and winter months, it’s more important than ever to take steps to protect your baby from respiratory viruses like COVID-19, RSV and the flu. Here’s how:

  • Babies at high risk for severe RSV may need medicine to help prevent it. Ask your baby’s health care provider if your baby needs this medicine.
  • Babies 6 months and older need a flu vaccine every year to help protect them from the flu. Parents, other family members and caregivers need a flu vaccine every year to help protect babies who are too young to get the vaccine. Get your flu shot during pregnancy as it protects your baby from the flu for several months after birth.
  • Practicing good infection control can help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. Take these steps to protect yourself and your baby:
    • Wash your hands often.
    • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
    • Clean and disinfect objects you touch regularly.
    • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
    • Practice social distancing. This means staying home when you can and keeping at least 6 feet distance from others.
    • When you’re around others, wear a cloth face cover or a facemask over your nose and mouth. Babies and children age 2 should not wear a face mask.
  • Talk to your health care provider about how to protect your baby from respiratory viruses, especially if your baby was premature or was in the NICU.

Learn more about RSV.