The ABCs of RSV: Here’s how to protect preemies and other babies from this common virus

Sometimes, a young child's seasonal sniffles can mean more than just a cold. Respiratory syncytial virus, referred to as RSV, is a common virus that usually causes cold-like symptoms in adults and children. But for some babies, especially those born prematurely or who have other risk factors, RSV disease can be more serious.

What is respiratory syncytial virus?
RSV is common. Almost all babies contract it at least once by age 2. The virus infects the upper respiratory system and usually resembles a common cold in children and adults. While RSV may remain an upper respiratory tract infection, sometimes with an ear infection, it commonly infects the lungs. This infection may cause pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which can result in severe breathing difficulty especially in the first few months of life.

RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization of children under 1 year old, accounting for more than 125,000 hospitalizations in the United States annually. Although the virus can cause serious health complications, even death, those cases are relatively rare.

Who is at risk?
All babies are at risk of contracting RSV, particularly within the first six months of life. Babies born prematurely (especially those born at less than 32 weeks) are at greater risk because their lungs and immune response for fighting off infections may not be fully developed. For these same reasons, premature infants also are more likely to develop chronic or recurrent lung disease.
Low birth weight (less than 5 pounds), chronic lung problems, heart disease and immune deficiency also increase the possibility that a baby will have a more serious RSV disease. Infants whose family has a history of asthma, and those exposed to tobacco smoke, are also at increased risk.

When are RSV outbreaks most common?
Because of the state's warm, moist climate, Floridians are more susceptible to a longer RSV season than average. Parents here need to be diligent about monitoring their baby for RSV symptoms and should consult their pediatrician with any questions or concerns.

What are RSV symptoms that parents should look for?
Some children, after experiencing RSV for several days, may appear to have more difficulty breathing and feeding and may appear especially tired. Babies who develop bronchiolitis have worsening cough, and wheezing may be heard.

What should parents do if they suspect their baby has RSV?
If your baby experiences these symptoms, call your pediatrician.

How do you care for a baby with RSV?
Most infants do well with the usual care required for colds and control of fever. Keeping your baby's nose clear of secretions by gentle suction and making sure your baby receives enough fluids will help.

Are there any ways to prevent RSV?
RSV lives on surfaces, like countertops and tissues, for several hours and can be contracted by touching these surfaces and then handling your baby or other objects used for the baby. The virus then infects the baby though the eyes and nose.
The best way to protect your baby from RSV is to keep other children and adults who have coughs or colds or are sneezing away from your baby. In addition, regularly cleaning your baby's toys and personal items may help prevent the spread of infection. Ensuring anyone handling your baby regularly washes his/her hands or uses antibacterial gels is helpful as well.

Dr. Maria Franco is a pediatric pulmonologist at Miami Children's Hospital.