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Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

August 23, 2021
Kids and RSV: What Parents Should Know
Kids and RSV: What Parents Should Know

In many parts of the country, including Arizona, we’re seeing higher numbers of cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) than we typically see this time of year. RSV is typically seen in the fall and winter.

We spoke to Dr. Gary Kirkilas, a Phoenix Children’s pediatrician, on what parents need to know about RSV and kids during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus is a contagious, seasonal respiratory infection. It is common in childhood but can affect adults as well. RSV is the most common cause of inflammation of the small airways in the lungs.

How is RSV spread?

RSV is spread through close contact, when an infected person or child sneezes or coughs and the virus gets into someone else’s body through the eyes, nose or mouth. It can also spread by touching an object or surface the virus has landed on, and then touching your face.

For these reasons, RSV can spread rapidly through schools and daycare centers. Babies can get RSV from older siblings who bring it home from school.

Why is RSV spreading out of season?

RSV is typically seen in late fall through early spring months. Mask wearing and physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic are likely the reasons for a low number of RSV cases in the 2020-2021 winter season.

As people gather in person more, and some protective measures during the pandemic are relaxed, we will start to see more viruses including RSV.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Most of the time, RSV causes minor upper respiratory cold-like symptoms. In some children, the infection can cause lower respiratory (bronchiolitis) symptoms that require hospitalization and intensive care. Common symptoms of RSV to look out for include:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Mild headache
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Sneezing and coughing
  • Tiredness
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Difficult or labored breathing (belly breathing)

How is RSV diagnosed?

If you suspect your child has RSV, contact their pediatrician. They may order a chest X-ray or other tests including nasal fluids.

How is RSV treated?

RSV goes away on its own, but it might take a couple weeks for your child to feel better. There is no specific treatment for RSV, but there are some things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable at home. These include managing fever and pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen; offering plenty of fluids; and checking with your child’s doctor before providing any nonprescription cold medicines.

In most cases of RSV in children, hospitalization isn’t necessary, and caregivers can treat children at home. Sometimes, doctors will prescribe medicine to help open a child’s airways.

Why are some children hospitalized for RSV?

In young children – especially those under 6 months of age or those with pre-existing health conditions or those who were born prematurely – RSV can be more serious and lead to bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs or pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.

Sometimes children will require hospitalization for RSV if they are dehydrated or having trouble breathing.

How can parents protect their children from RSV?

To protect yourself from viruses including RSV, please wash your hands and stay home if you’re sick.

To protect your child from COVID-19, it’s essential for them to get vaccinated as soon as it’s made available to them. Ensuring herd immunity is a key factor in putting the pandemic behind us. In addition, we encourage everyone to follow proper hand-washing techniques and follow CDC mask guidance.

Does RSV affect adults?

Adults can get RSV, but it usually appears as a mild cold. It is possible for adults to pass RSV onto their children and babies.

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