If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
RSV is on the rise, but there’s no need for alarm. While RSV usually doesn’t spike until the middle of winter, there’s several explanations for why young children seem to be catching the virus at higher rates this fall.
For babies and toddlers born at the height of the pandemic, this may be the first season where they’re exposed to the virus. During 2020 and 2021, there were fewer cases of RSV and other respiratory illnesses simply because we were diligent about social distancing, wearing masks, and practicing hand hygiene to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Now that life has largely resumed its normal routine, we’re seeing RSV cases consistent with what we’ve experienced in the past, just in a different time of the year.
It’s never easy to see your child sick, especially when they’re little. But rest assured, most RSV cases resolve themselves at home. While you ride it out, knowing what to expect and when to seek care can help provide some peace of mind and perspective.
What is RSV?
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a virus that spreads through droplets in the air, similar to COVID-19, the common cold, and the flu. It’s a common virus that typically circulates throughout the winter months, usually peaking in February. RSV symptoms include coughing and congestion, which is why it’s often confused with other respiratory viruses. It can affect adults and children alike, however symptoms are generally worse for young children who haven’t yet built up immunity to the virus. The only way to determine whether your child has RSV, COVID-19, or another virus is through tests.
Is RSV dangerous for children?
Most children and adults with RSV can recover at home within one to two weeks without medical intervention. However, the virus is known to cause lower tract infections, including pneumonia and inflammation in small airways of the lungs (bronchioles), called bronchiolitis. Because infants and children under the age of two are so small, inflammation in their airways can lead to more severe symptoms, like difficulty breathing. In addition, the first RSV infection can be worse than subsequent infections because the body hasn’t built up any immunity to it. For that reason RSV can be more concerning for little ones, kids with asthma, and immunocompromised individuals.
While hospitalization is uncommon, sometimes babies and kids have so much trouble clearing the mucus from their tiny airways that they need breathing support. That’s why it’s important to know which warning signs warrant a visit to urgent care or the emergency room.
How is RSV treated?
If you suspect your child has RSV or any other respiratory virus, the best thing you can do is try to keep them comfortable, monitor their fever, and be on the lookout for any red flags. Depending on the age of your child, Tylenol or Motrin can help to manage a high fever.
In addition, if you have at-home COVID-19 tests or want to get them tested at your doctor’s office, you certainly can, as it’s always a possibility that’s the cause of their symptoms. Pediatricians can also test for RSV, but it may not be necessary unless they have severe symptoms. There is no vaccine or treatment for RSV, so all you can do is try to provide relief for your child and seek medical care if there are any signs of difficulty breathing, worsening infection, or dehydration.
If you are concerned or uncomfortable, it’s always helpful to touch base with your pediatrician, especially if your child is under six months. They can help you understand what’s normal and provide peace of mind as well as information on what to do if symptoms worsen. You can also talk to a MedStar Health urgent care provider via telehealth from the comfort of your home with MedStar eVisit. MedStar eVisit is available 24/7, no appointment needed. Just sign up or log in if you already have an account and request a visit. During your telehealth visit, the provider can advise whether or not you should seek in-person care at a MedStar Health Urgent Care near you.
When is RSV an emergency?
It’s important to seek quick medical attention at an urgent care or with your child’s pediatrician if your child develops any of the following:
- Persistent high fever that persists beyond three to five days and doesn't respond to medication
- Mild breathing difficulties or wheezing
- Cough that continues to worsen beyond three to five days
- Signs of mild dehydration
It is important to call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department is your child develops any of the following:
- Lips turning blue
- Significant difficulty breathing
- Signs of severe dehydration
You should also watch out for signs of dehydration, as babies and young children can quickly become dehydrated if they have a decreased appetite and are struggling to breath. Other signs of dehydration may include:
- Not producing tears
- Sunken eyes (less fullness in the face)
- Dry lips
- Fewer wet diapers or less trips to the bathroom (less than 3 wet diapers in 24 hours is a sign of more severe dehydration)
Can I prevent my child from being hospitalized?
There’s nothing you can do to prevent hospitalization because it’s impossible to predict the course of a virus in any child. However, it’s always beneficial to take precautions that can help prevent infection in the first place.
Because RSV is a respiratory virus, it can easily be spread through droplets dispersed in the air from coughing or sneezing. You can catch if the virus droplets enter your eyes, nose, or mouth, or if you touch a surface with the virus on it and then touch your face. You can help your children learn preventative measures to lower their chances of getting any virus, such as:
- Frequent and thorough hand washing
- Covering their mouth when they cough or sneeze
- Avoiding crowded situations that are unnecessary
- Staying away from people who are sick as much as you can
- Ensuring your child isn’t exposed to secondhand smoke
If you are a parent of a child with asthma, it’s also important to stay updated on your child’s asthma action plan so that you know if and when symptoms require medical care.
Stay alert, but have peace of mind knowing this isn't new.
Be reassured that it’s common for children to catch several viruses throughout the course of winter, and although we’re seeing RSV much earlier than usual, the symptoms are the same as they’ve always been. You know this if you have older kids who have been through daycare and elementary school; RSV today is no different.
Do your best to keep your child comfortable, stay informed about the warning signs of infection, and remain in contact with your pediatrician. You got through a worldwide pandemic, and you can get through this too.