Knowing and Lowering Your Child’s Risk of Severe RSV

Tens of thousands of young children are hospitalized every year with severe respiratory syncytial virus infection.

As a parent, there are steps you can take to reduce the spread of RSV and other infections.

Each year, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the cause for millions of trips to healthcare providers and tens of thousands of hospitalizations among children under the age of 5. RSV infections cause many hospitalizations in children under six months old—between one and two children in this age group who become infected with RSV may need to be hospitalized.

In most cases, RSV infections are mild, and symptoms are no different than the common cold—runny nose, sore throat, cough, congestion, sneezing, and fever.

However, RSV infections can also spread to the lower respiratory tract, infecting the bronchial tubes and lungs, resulting in an infection that makes it difficult for a person to breathe.

Unlike other viruses that have the potential to cause serious respiratory illness—like the flu and COVID-19—there is no vaccine to protect against RSV (though vaccines are in development). There is a preventive treatment, but it is only used for children under the age of 2 who are most vulnerable to severe RSV infections and outcomes.

If you are pregnant or are the parent of an infant, it’s important to know your child’s risk of severe RSV.

Knowing your child’s risk

While any viral infection has the potential to become serious, certain people are more at risk for a severe RSV infection. Risk factors include:

  • Being born pre-term
  • Being born at a low birth weight
  • Being under the age of 2 years and having a chronic lung disease
  • Being under the age of 2 years and having congenital heart disease
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having difficulty swallowing or clearing out mucus
  • Having a neuromuscular disorder
  • If a mother smoked during pregnancy
  • Exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke
  • Not breastfeeding
  • Living in crowded conditions
  • A history of allergies and/or eczema
  • Having siblings or being around other children in childcare or being in other crowded conditions

It’s also important to understand that severe RSV infections are not strictly limited to children with these risk factors—and that any respiratory infection, whether it’s RSV or something else, can become severe given the right circumstances.

Preventing RSV infections

Like other cold-causing viruses, RSV spreads easily. Coughing, sneezing, being in close contact, and sharing cups and utensils can be enough to spread RSV from one person to another. The virus can also stay on surfaces and objects—like tabletops, toys, clothes, and bedding—for several hours. A person can acquire the virus if they touch one of these and then touch their eyes, nose, mouth, or ears without washing their hands.

As a parent, there are steps you can take to reduce the spread of RSV and other infections—after all, there are many viruses and other culprits that can cause respiratory illness. These steps include:

  • Washing hands frequently (and for at least 20 seconds with soap and water)
  • Cleaning and disinfecting toys and frequently touched surfaces
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick

Mentioned above, for children who are younger than two years who are at high risk, there is a medication that can help prevent RSV infection. It is given as a monthly injection, typically throughout the fall and winter. These injections contain monoclonal antibodies—lab-made antibodies that fight RSV should it enter the body.

Other preventive medicines are also under development, including a monoclonal antibody treatment that requires fewer injections to prevent severe RSV.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV Trends and Surveillance.
MedlinePlus. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Mayo Clinic. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Andrea Jones. RSV: When It's More Than Just a Cold. March 11, 2022.
American Lung Association. Facts About the Common Cold.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV in Infants and Young Children. Children and Colds. Respiratory Syncytial Virus.
Aetna. Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV Prevention.
MedlinePlus. Palivizumab Injection.
M. Pamela Griffin, Yuan Yuan, et al. Single-Dose Nirsevimab for Prevention of RSV in Preterm Infants. The New England Journal of Medicine. July 30, 2020.

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