What New and Expecting Parents Should Know About RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the leading cause of hospitalizations among infants.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) results in millions of visits to pediatricians every year.

Children get sick often—and to some extent, it’s not a bad thing. Like all the other parts of your baby, their immune system is in an important stage of growth and development. Encountering cold viruses helps a child’s immune system learn to defend against cold viruses.

At the same time, you want to protect your child from the most serious illnesses—those that can cause severe symptoms, that have the potential to cause hospitalization.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the leading cause of hospitalizations among infants, both within the United States and across the globe. In the U.S., approximately 58,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized in a given year with an RSV infection. Very young infants—those 6 months old or younger—can be very vulnerable to severe RSV infection.

Here are five things new and expecting parents should know about RSV.

Most infections are mild

While RSV is the cause of many hospitalizations, the majority of cases only cause upper respiratory infections—in other words, a common cold.

In infants under 12 months old, mild symptoms can include a runny or stuffy nose, nasal discharge (clear at first, but turning to gray, yellow, or green), coughing, fever, watery eyes, and sometimes swollen lymph nodes in the neck. A child may also have trouble nursing or have a decreased appetite, be irritable, and have trouble sleeping.

Most RSV infections will resolve within two weeks.

Most children will have RSV by age 2

Most children will have had at least one RSV infection by age 2. In many cases, a parent will not be able to tell if the cause of the infection was RSV or any of the hundreds of other viruses that can cause a common cold—lab tests to confirm a diagnosis aren’t always required, especially if symptoms are mild.

Some infants are at higher risk

RSV infections cause problems when the infection spreads into the lower respiratory tract—the bronchial tubes and lungs—causing bronchiolitis, bronchitis, and/or pneumonia. These infections can make it difficult for an infant to breathe—and if a child is having trouble breathing, they will require immediate medical attention.

Some children are at a higher risk of severe RSV infection. This includes babies that are born pre-term, born at a low birth weight, or are younger than six months old. It also includes children under 2 years old who have a chronic lung condition or congenital heart disease, children who have neuromuscular disorders, and children who have a weakened immune system.

However, children without any of these risk factors can also develop a severe infection from RSV or other viruses that infect the respiratory system.

There is no vaccine for RSV

A vaccine that prevents RSV has been sought after for a long time. While several are in development, none are yet available.

For infants at high risk for severe RSV infections, there is a monoclonal antibody treatment that can be given as a preventive measure. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made versions of antibody proteins designed to attack the RSV if it enters the body. This preventive treatment is given as a series of injections.

Newer monoclonal antibody treatments to prevent RSV are in development, which will require fewer shots—and hopefully be made more widely available.

Healthcare providers are your best source of information

Whether you are an expecting parent or a new parent, your best source of information will be your family’s healthcare providers.

Your healthcare providers will be able to answer any questions you have—about your child’s risk factors for a serious respiratory infection, what symptoms to watch for, and steps you can take to protect your child from RSV and other illnesses. They can also help address any concerns you have.

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Stanford Medicine Children's Health. Common Cold in Children. Children and Colds.
Colds in Children. Paediatrics Child Health, 2005. Vol. 10, No. 8.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV Trends and Surveillance.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV in Infants and Young Children.
Andrea Jones. RSV: When It's More Than Just a Cold. March 11, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Common cold in babies.
Seattle Children's Hospital. Colds (0-12 Months).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV): Symptoms and Care.
American Lung Association. RSV Symptoms and Diagnosis.
World Health Organization. Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) disease.
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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