Childhood Illnesses

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is highly infectious and almost all babies get it. Many babies get only a slight cold from RSV. Some develop potentially serious infections such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) commonly causes infection in childhood. RSV is very contagious. Almost all babies get it before the age of 2. Many babies (and most older children) get only a cold from RSV.

Some babies with RSV develop potentially serious lower respiratory infections. Examples are:

  • Bronchiolitis, an infection of the small breathing tubes in the lungs
  • Pneumonia

These infections are especially dangerous in babies who were born prematurely, have lung or heart problems, or have certain other chronic illnesses. Your baby can get RSV at any time of year, but it is most common from October to March.

Symptoms of RSV usually last between 8-15 days. Most babies with RSV do not become seriously ill. But a few become very sick. They may need to be treated in the hospital with oxygen. In some cases, the baby will need bronchodilators (drugs that help open up breathing tubes) and antiviral drugs.

Call your baby's health care provider right away if your baby:

  • Develops fast breathing or breathing problems
  • Wheezes (makes a whistling sound when exhaling)
  • Develops a worsening cough (Do not give over-the-counter cough and cold products to infants and children younger than 4 years of age. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, these medications can have serious and life-threatening side effects.)
  • Looks blue around the mouth or fingertips
  • Has difficulty sucking and swallowing
  • Develops any fever of more than 100.4 F in the first 3 months of life, 101 F or greater between 3 and 6 months, or 103 F after 6 months of age

If your baby has RSV, be sure she gets extra rest and drinks lots of fluids. You also can use a rubber suction bulb to help clear mucus from your baby's nose, especially before feedings.

If your baby was born prematurely (too early), or has lung or heart disease, talk to your health care provider about ways to help prevent RSV.

Babies who are at highest risk from RSV (including babies born at or before 32 weeks of pregnancy) may benefit from medication that helps prevent the infection. This medication is called palivizumab (Synagis). It is given in monthly injections during the fall and winter months. 

You can help protect your baby from RSV by:

  • Keeping him 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
  • Not allowing anyone to smoke near your baby

For more information, visit the RSV protection Web site.

Note: The March of Dimes does not endorse specific brands or products.

July 2006 (R 1-8, 7-9)

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