Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

June 16, 2021
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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A dry cough, slight fever, and runny nose always seem like sure-fire symptoms for something like the common cold or flu. But, these common symptoms and others can also be the first indication of something worse, such as a viral infection. While most infections can be treated swiftly with antibiotics, viral infections cannot. And, some age groups — such as pediatric and geriatric patients — are more at risk for developing complications from the infection and may have a difficult time fighting it. Such is the case with the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). What causes it, and how can you protect your loved ones?

What is a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV is a viral and extremely contagious respiratory infection. It primarily impacts the lungs and respiratory tract. For most people, self-care can typically clear up the virus in a couple of weeks. But, for those born prematurely, two years of age or younger, older adults, or those who are immunocompromised, RSV can lead to serious lung infections — including pneumonia and bronchitis.

People who have an RSV are usually contagious for three to eight days. But, infants and people with weakened immune systems can continue to spread the virus for as long as four weeks. RSV typically spreads from person to person through:

  • The air, by coughing and sneezing
  • Direct contact, such as kissing the face of a child who has RSV
  • Touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands

Symptoms of RSV

Most symptoms of RSV are very mild and are similar to a cold. These symptoms can last one to two weeks and may include:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache

However, infants, older adults, and people with serious medical problems may develop additional symptoms. If the virus has moved to the lower respiratory tract, the infection may cause pneumonia, bronchitis, and inflammation. This leads to more serious signs, including:

  • Fever
  • Severe cough — including yellow, green, or gray mucus
  • A high-pitched whistling or wheezing noise when they breathe
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Struggling to breathe – chest muscles and skin pull inward with each breath
  • Being unusually upset or inactive, irritability
  • Refusing to breastfeed or bottle-feed
  • Signs of dehydration — such as lack of tears when crying, little or no urine in their diaper for 6 hours, and cool, dry skin
  • Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen (cyanosis)

Diagnosing RSV

If your infant or immunocompromised loved one has symptoms of RSV, you should make an appointment with their doctor. RSV and COVID-19 are both types of respiratory viruses, and the symptoms can be similar. Having RSV may lower immunity and increase the risk of getting COVID-19. And, these infections can occur together, which can worsen the severity of COVID-19.

A pediatrician or physician will run some tests to determine the cause of your loved one’s symptoms. These tests may include:

  • Discussing their medical history — including asking about symptoms
  • Conducting a physical exam
  • Taking a sample of nasal fluid or another respiratory specimen to check for RSV and ruling out other viral infections
  • Checking for complications in people with severe infection using a chest x-ray or taking blood and urine tests

Treatment & Prevention

The best way to treat RSV is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. By adopting healthy lifestyle habits, you can avoid receiving or passing the virus. Common prevention tactics include:

  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Avoiding exposure by covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and limiting your baby’s contact with people who have fevers or colds
  • Keeping things clean — including shared spaces like kitchen and bathroom countertops, doorknobs, and handles
  • Discarding used tissues right away
  • Not sharing drinking glasses with others — especially if they’re sick
  • Not smoking — especially around babies who are at a higher risk of getting RSV and potentially more severe symptoms
  • Washing toys regularly

While no vaccine is currently available for RSV, the medication palivizumab (Synagis), given as an injection, can help protect certain infants and children two years old and younger who are at high risk of serious complications from RSV. High-risk children in this age group include those who:

  • Were born prematurely
  • Have chronic lung disease
  • Have certain heart defects
  • Have a weakened immune system

If your infant or loved one is diagnosed with RSV, some treatment options can still help. Over-the-counter pain relievers can assist with fever and pain. However, you should avoid aspirin and check with your pediatrician about what medications are suitable for children under two. It is also important your loved one receives enough fluids to prevent dehydration.

If your child turns blue, especially around the lips and fingernails, or is struggling to breathe, you should contact 911 immediately. Your child may need to be hospitalized and require assistance getting oxygen — such as breathing tubes and a ventilator.

Contact Care Options for Kids for Home Health Care

It can be hard to balance your time between work, home, and caring for a child. That’s why our team of skilled professionals at Care Options for Kids is here to help.

Our home health care services offer support in the comfort of your home. We refer loving and competent nurses to provide customized care for families — from a few hours a day to around-the-clock supervision. Contact us directly to speak with a home health care professional or request a free in-home assessment. Together we can determine the best plan of action to keep your loved ones happy and healthy.

If you or a loved one are considering Pediatric Home Health Care services, contact the caring staff at Care Options for Kids. Call today at (888) 592-5855.