When suffering from symptoms such as a fever, cough and nasal congestion, many assume they’re fighting the flu. However, these could also be symptoms of a lesser known virus — RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. RSV, which causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages, is a major cause of respiratory illness in young children and is one of the most common reasons for hospital visits among infants and children. This viral infection can lead to croup, bronchiolitis, lung failure and pneumonia.

While most children recover from the disease in a week or two, infection with respiratory syncytial virus can be severe in some cases, especially in premature babies and infants with underlying health conditions. RSV can also become serious in older adults, adults with heart and lung diseases, or anyone with a weakened immune system.

Common Symptoms

Symptoms of RSV vary with age and differ in severity, from mild to severe. Consulting a physician in the early stages of the illness is the key to preventing serious complications. It’s important to note that while many children are infected with the virus, only a very small percentage of children develop severe symptoms or complications.

Parents should monitor their children closely for these RSV symptoms:

  • Bluish skin or nail color due to a lack of oxygen
  • Labored or rapid breathing
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Fever or irritability
  • Refusal to feed or persistent vomiting

Strained breathing, high fever, thick nasal discharge, and a worsening cough that produces yellow, green, or gray mucus are all signs of a worsening or severe illness. Call your doctor immediately if symptoms worsen.

RSV Diagnosis and Treatment

When you visit your child’s physician with any of these symptoms, he or she will evaluate your child and do a nasal secretion test or a chest x-ray if needed. Mild infections go away on their own and typically last about a week or several weeks in some cases. Sometimes medication may be given to help open airways; however, most of the time the only treatment required for mild cases is rest.

For parents of children diagnosed with an RSV infection the following treatment is suggested:

  • Provide plenty of fluids. For babies, offer fluids in small amounts at more frequent intervals.
  • Use a nasal aspirator (or bulb syringe) to remove sticky nasal fluids in infants.
  • Treat fever using a non-aspirin medicine like acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used in children with viral illnesses.

How to Prevent the Spread of RSV

RSV is highly contagious and can be spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes into the air, sending virus-containing droplets into the air, where they can infect a person if these droplets come in contact with their mouth, nose, or eye.

Infection can also result from indirect contact, such as touching a doorknob infected with the virus.

Researchers are working to develop an RSV vaccine, but none is available yet. However, RSV can be prevented through common sense precautions such as:

  • Diligently cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Wash your hands frequently, particularly before touching your baby.
  • Avoid sharing cups and eating utensils
  • Use a disinfectant to clean hard surfaces that many people touch (such as doorknobs, telephones, remote controls, etc.).
  • Limit your infant’s contact with people who have fevers or colds.
  • Don’t smoke. Infants who are exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of contracting RSV and potentially more severe symptoms.