Ask the Experts: What are the symptoms of RSV?

By Kristy Bleizeffer Jan 9, 2017

Winter is prime time for a variety of viruses in Wyoming, including RSV - respiratory syncytial virus. For parents of the very young, RSV can be particularly scary because it can lead to difficulty in breathing and may require hospitalization in severe cases.

Here, pediatrician Melissa Knudson-Johnson, M.D., answers common questions about this common winter virus.

1. What is RSV?

RSV is one of many viruses that can cause an infection in the lungs and breathing passages of babies and young children. It typically causes what we call bronchiolitis which is an infection of the bronchioles (small breathing tubes of the lungs). There are multiple viruses that can cause bronchiolitis, and RSV is one of them.

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2. What are the symptoms?

Most healthy people who contract RSV experience mild, cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, cough and sometimes fever. More severe symptoms include difficulty breathing.  This can sometimes require supplemental oxygen and IV fluids because the rate of breathing is too high to eat or drink.  In such situations, an infected child would need hospitalization.

3. Who is most at risk?

Infants, especially preterm infants, are at risk as well as young children. It is the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis in children younger than 1. It can also be serious in older adults.

4. Why is it so dangerous for infants?

RSV can compromise the breathing in infants and sometimes the lungs are not as developed, especially in preterm infants. These children sometimes need to be placed on machines to help them breathe because the rate of breathing becomes so high that their small bodies get tired. This allows the body to rest while the machine takes over the breathing and helps the lungs to heal from the virus.  

5. How is RSV treated?

There is no real treatment for RSV except supportive care.  As stated above, sometimes children will need oxygen, IV fluids and even mechanical ventilation if their case is severe.

6.  When should parents seek medical help?

If you are concerned about your child’s breathing, it is always beneficial to be evaluated by a medical professional. Warning signs that will show that your child is having more trouble breathing include nasal flaring, increased respiratory rate and retractions.  

If you notice any blue discoloration of the lips, this is a sign that the child is not getting enough oxygen and the child should be evaluated immediately.

7.  How is RSV spread?

RSV is spread through airborne droplets and can live in the body for two to eight days prior to the presentation of symptoms. It typically is more prevalent in the winter and spring. Avoiding close contact with children and adults who are infected with viruses will help prevent it from spreading.  

Good and frequent handwashing is important.  For certain populations such as very preterm infants or those with congenital lung/heart disease, there is an injection (palivizumab) that can reduce the risk.

Melissa Knudson-Johnson, MD

Melissa Knudson-Johnson M.D.

Dr. Melissa Knudson-Johnson is an internal medicine and pediatrics doctor which is called med-peds, a type of medical specialty which trains physicians to be board eligible in both pediatrics and internal medicine. She sees patients of all ages at Mesa Primary Care. She is board certified in pediatrics and is board eligible in internal medicine.

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