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RSV: When Colds Become Serious

RSV: When Colds Become Serious

When your infant comes down with a cold, you need to be on the alert. Baby colds can quickly turn into acute bronchiolitis, a serious lower respiratory tract illness that causes swelling of the small airways in the lungs. The Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is the most common cause of acute bronchiolitis. While the infection can occur from birth to two years of age, infants between ages two and six months are the most susceptible.

The RSV lowdown:

  • How is RSV transmitted?
    Although RSV is a respiratory virus, it is transmitted mainly by direct hand contact from infected individuals.

  • What are the signs and symptoms?
    Typically, an affected infant has cold-like symptoms such as nasal congestion, runny nose, low-grade fever, decreased appetite and irritability. After several days, symptoms progress to rapid breathing, rapid heart rate and a hacking cough, suggesting the spread of the viral infection to the lower respiratory tract. Increasing respiratory distress may cause the skin around the mouth to turn a bluish color (cyanosis). Your infant may also produce a wheezing sound when breathing while the muscles between the ribs and below the rib cage retract. Your baby may appear very sleepy, and dehydration may result from reduced feedings.

  • How is it diagnosed?
    A test can be performed in the hospital to confirm the diagnosis of RSV bronchiolitis, but often a history and physical exam are sufficient to make the diagnosis. A chest x-ray may also be helpful.

  • Can it be confused with other diseases?
    Asthma is a major consideration in children with bronchiolitis and is the more likely diagnosis if there have been previous episodes of wheezing.

    Gastric reflux with aspiration of the stomach contents may also produce the symptoms of bronchiolitis, but cold-like symptoms do not precede respiratory distress in these cases.

  • How is it treated?
    Most children are treated at home and improve within three to five days. Underlying conditions such as prematurity, heart disease, and a weakened immune system puts a child at high-risk for more serious complications from the disease. These babies should be monitored more closely.

    There are no specific medications to treat RSV bronchiolitis. You'll need to monitor your infant closely for signs of respiratory distress (outlined above) and dehydration (signs include lethargy and dry diapers). If the fever persists for more than four to five days and/or remains elevated despite treatment with acetaminophen, your infant should be seen immediately by a physician. Otherwise, adequate feeding of fluids by and applying saline drops into the nose for nasal congestion are sufficient until the infection resolves in three to five days.

  • Can you prevent your baby from getting RSV?
    Yes. HAND WASHING is the most reliable way of protecting your infant. It is especially important if there are older siblings in the house who are exhibiting common cold-like signs. Having others hold your young infant should be minimized to avoid transmission. Since RSV tends to peak between October and April, you need to be extra mindful of taking precautions with your infant during these months.

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About The Author

Dr. Karakurum is associate director of the division of pediatric pulmonology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.

The content on these pages is provided as general information only and should not be substituted for the advice of your physician.


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