In the coming months you’ll hear lots about colds and flu. They’re important, for sure, but there’s one more illness you’ll want to know about if you have a baby – especially one who was born early. Pediatrician William P. Hitchcock, M.D., sent in this article to help fill you in.
By William P. Hitchcock, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Assistant Clinical Professor, U.C.S.D.
La Jolla Pediatrics/ La Costa Pediatrics
As we approach the winter season, many parents will be watching their children for symptoms of colds, flu, and the newest seasonal bug, H1N1. Most parents don’t know, however, about another virus that’s both prevalent and contagious this time of year, which can be very dangerous to some children, especially those born prematurely.
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, results in twice as many pediatric hospitalizations as the seasonal flu. Worse yet, RSV can be hard to detect, with symptoms similar to the common cold. By educating yourself on the virus, you can take steps to protect your child from developing severe RSV infection this season.
What is RSV?
RSV is a virus that often results in an upper respiratory tract infection, characterized by a runny nose and fever. It affects nearly all children by their second birthday, and in most healthy children and adults, RSV simply causes cold-like symptoms that come and go within a week or two. In certain children, however, the infection often progresses to the lungs causing bronchiolitis exhibited by a severe cough, chest retractions and wheezing. This infection can be very serious in many babies; in fact, RSV infection is the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the United States.
In most of North America, RSV is prevalent in epidemics from fall to spring. “RSV season,” as it’s often called, varies by geography and from year to year. For example, in places with warm climates it often starts as early as June. To find out what time of year your baby is most susceptible to RSV, consult your pediatrician.
Is my baby at risk for RSV?
All babies are at risk for contracting RSV, particularly within the first six months of life, but babies with certain risk factors, including prematurity, are especially vulnerable to developing severe RSV infection. Due to their underdeveloped lungs and fewer vital antibodies to fight off infection, premature babies (born earlier than 37 weeks gestational age) are susceptible to serious RSV-related illness. Other babies at an increased risk of developing severe RSV infection include those with a low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds), and those with chronic lung disease, congenital heart disease or weakened immune systems. These babies should be watched more closely for signs of RSV, even after six months of age.
Other risk factors of developing RSV infection include a family history of asthma, frequent contact with other children (e.g., older siblings or attending daycare), or exposure to tobacco smoke.
What symptoms should I look for?
While many RSV symptoms initially resemble the common cold (e.g., stuffy nose, cough and fever), the virus can escalate quickly, resulting in more alarming symptoms, and even death. It is important to contact your child’s pediatrician if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Severe cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Turning blue
- High fever
- Difficulty feeding
How can I help protect my baby?
RSV is a very contagious virus that is easily spread through touching, kissing, sneezing and coughing. It can live on surfaces like countertops for several hours. Because RSV is a virus, antibiotics don’t help. To keep your baby healthy, make sure to avoid other children and adults who are sick, and remind family and friends to always wash their hands or use antibacterial gels before touching your baby. Frequently washing your baby’s bedding, toys and personal items also helps to prevent the spread of RSV. Additionally, for a small group of babies who are considered to be at highest risk of becoming seriously ill from RSV, a monthly preventive injection may be available from your child’s doctor.
This winter season, it is critical to follow these steps in order to protect your child from exposure to RSV. Even if your baby is not displaying all of the RSV symptoms listed above, always trust your instincts because you know your child best. Consult a physician if any potential warning signs appear.
For more information, visit www.rsvprotection.com.