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RSV: Can Look Like a Cold But More Serious

Blog RSV: Can Look Like a Cold But More Serious

Each year in the U.S., more than 57,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized due to RSV, and about 14,000 adults older than 65 die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common childhood illness that usually only causes symptoms similar to a cold. However, it can occasionally develop into a more serious issue.

Each year in the U.S., more than 57,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized due to RSV, and about 14,000 adults older than 65 die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Almost all children will have had RSV by the time they reach age 2. Symptoms include runny nose, cough, fever, reduced appetite and fatigue. The virus is spread through droplets when coughing or sneezing.

“Most children have had it and don’t realize it because for the most part they do fine,” says Dr. Michael McKenna, pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “The problem is that for some kids it can get into their lungs.”

In some children, RSV develops into a severe lung infection, either bronchiolitis (infection of small airways in the lungs) or pneumonia (an infection of the lungs). The CDC recommends calling your pediatrician if symptoms worsen or if your child has trouble breathing or drinking fluids.

Bronchiolitis symptoms may include a fever; a hacking, productive cough; and “respiratory distress,” or trouble breathing, Dr. McKenna says. Parents can spot respiratory distress by watching if their child’s ribs or areas of the chest appear to be sucking in more as the child tries to breathe harder, he explains. Children may also breathe faster or have rapid, shallow breathing.

While there is a lab test that can confirm RSV, there is no specific treatment, so testing isn’t usually necessary, says Dr. McKenna. Because RSV is a virus, antibiotics do not work. (Antibiotics kill bacteria and don’t work against colds or other viruses.)

However, premature babies and children younger than two years old who have chronic lung disease or certain heart problems will often be given preventive monthly shots (of a medicine called palivizumab) since RSV can be more dangerous to them.

Treatment for most children involves plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids. Some parents may also want to use a cool mist vaporizer. While adults can also get RSV, it’s often so mild they don’t even know they’re sick, says Dr. McKenna. However, they can pass along the virus to others. Elderly adults and people with weaker immune systems should be monitored similarly to young children because RSV can develop into bronchiolitis and pneumonia in adults, too.

Here are some tips to stop the spread of RSV.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Keep your hands away from your face.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Do not share food or drinks.
  • Cough and sneeze into your arm.
  • Disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as doorknobs.
  • Stay home when you feel sick.

-- By Melanie Padgett Powers

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