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All About RSV and How to Protect Your Newborn

RSV season is upon us, and it generally lasts November through March, so now is a great time to learn more about RSV and how you can help protect your newborn.

Respiratory Syncytical Virus (RSV) is a highly contagious, common viral respiratory infection. For older children and adults, the symptoms are usually quite mild, much like a common cold. However, for infants, RSV can be a potentially dangerous illness.

Newborns up to 12 weeks of age are at the highest risk for complications of RSV. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia as well as the leading cause of hospitalization in infants under 1 year of age. Babies born prematurely, before 37 weeks gestation, are at significantly higher risk for a severe case of RSV.

The virus can affect any part of the respiratory tract causing intense inflammation. The infection is most serious when it affects the small breathing tubes (bronchioles) causing (bronchiolitis). It can also cause infection in the rest of the lungs (pneumonia). -American Lung Association

Symptoms of RSV include:

(American Lung Association)

  • Nasal congestion, runny nose, mild cough, and low-grade fever are the typical initial symptoms of both the mild and of the more severe forms of the disease.

  • Barking cough, which can be a sign of significant swelling in and around the vocal cords

  • Fever, either low grade (less than 101 degrees F) or high (more than 103 degrees F)

  • Difficulty breathing with one or more of the following:

  1. Abnormally fast breathing (tachypnea)

  2. "Caving-in" of the chest in between the ribs and under the ribs (chest wall retractions)

  3. "Spreading-out" of the nostrils with every breath (nasal flaring)

  • Wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound as the patient breathes out)

  • Difficulty drinking/feeding

  • Lethargy

  • Bluish color around the mouth, lips, and fingernails (cyanosis)

  • Apnea (stopping breathing) is a common symptom of RSV bronchiolitis among very young infants, especially those born prematurely

RSV is contagious and spreads like the common cold―from one person to another through direct person-to-person contact through saliva, mucus, or nasal discharge. This can be through coughing or sneezing, unclean hands (RSV can survive 30 minutes or more on unwashed hands), or unclean objects or surfaces (RSV can survive up to 6 hours on surfaces like door knobs, faucets, and the checkout keypad at the grocery store).

Symptoms can appear 2 to 8 days after contact with RSV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people infected with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days. However, some infants and people with weakened immune systems can be contagious for as long as four weeks―even if they are not showing symptoms. An infected person is most contagious in the first few days after infection, sometimes without even showing symptoms. This means that an adult can potentially be carrying and spreading RSV to a newborn or at risk adult without even realizing it. Children and adults can get RSV multiple times–even during a single season.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, call your pediatrician right away if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • A fever (with a rectal temperature of 100.4°F or higher) and he or she is younger than 3 months of age (12 weeks).

  • A fever that rises above 104°F repeatedly for a child of any age.

  • Symptoms of bronchiolitis

  • Fast breathing

  • Flaring of the nostrils

  • Head bobbing with breathing

  • Rhythmic grunting during breathing

  • Belly breathing, tugging between their ribs, and/or tugging at the lower neck

  • Wheezing

  • Symptoms of dehydration (fewer than 1 wet diaper every 8 hours)

  • Pauses or difficulty breathing

  • Gray or blue color to tongue, lips, or skin

  • Significantly decreased activity and alertness

While RSV can be a scary thought when you have a newborn, there are many simple measures you can take to help protect your little one!

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often, and ask others to do the same as they enter your home or before holding your baby.

  • Avoid kissing your baby on the face if you have cold symptoms.

  • Wash your baby’s, clothing, blankets, and toys often, especially if they are brought out of the home.

  • Keep your baby away or limit exposure to crowds, young children, and anyone with colds.

  • Don’t share eating utensils and cups with one another.

  • Regularly disinfect hard surfaces such as door knobs, countertops, and faucet handles.

Here are several quality resources for understanding RSV and managing symptoms.


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