A respiratory illness known as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, looks and sounds like a cold. But in some babies, it can become much more serious, says Tracy Lower, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield.
RSV is highly contagious and causes respiratory symptoms that affect the lungs and breathing passages. The infection can be severe in some groups, including infants and young children up to two years old, especially if they have lung and heart problems.
“Children who are especially prone to more complicated illnesses are those who are born prematurely or have immature lungs or heart problems,” explains Dr. Lower, who serves as director of SIU’s pediatric hospitalist services as well as medical director of the inpatient unit at St. John’s Children’s Hospital. She and her SIU colleagues regularly see RSV cases in the winter months, November through March.
RSV resembles other viruses with sneezing, runny nose and cough. It may cause wheezing, trouble breathing, decreased appetite and dehydration.
“In young children, it can cause bronchiolitis and pneumonia. These children may need to go into the hospital and even into the intensive care unit, where a breathing machine and intravenous fluids may be necessary,” adds Dr. Lower.
RSV is spread by coughing, sneezing and human contact. Children who are less than six months old and going to day care are especially susceptible to the disease. In day care and preschools, it can be passed very quickly among the children, who then transmit it to older children and adults.
“Older children and adults usually have only cold-like symptoms, which usually appear four to six days after coming in contact with the virus. The heavy muscle aches and headaches associated with influenza are not usually present with RSV,” says Dr. Lower. “The virus has to run its course because there is no medicine, like an antibiotic, to treat it.”
Dr. Lower urges parents to practice good hand washing and to cover their mouths when sneezing or coughing to protect young children from RSV. If an infant is having trouble catching his or her breath or if the baby can’t feed and take a breath at the same time, parents should contact their pediatrician or go to a hospital emergency room immediately.
Submitted by the Public Affairs department of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
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