Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has overwhelmed hospitals over the past few months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says cases may have finally peaked in New England and other parts of the country. That’s good news, but it’s not time to let your guard down yet. RSV is still out there, plus influenza is rampant across the United States, and the CDC is monitoring an uptick in COVID-19 cases as well. All three respiratory viruses are highly contagious and share many of the same symptoms making it difficult to tell the viruses apart. In the second in our series of blogs on respiratory illnesses, we take a closer look at RSV.
What is RSV?
RSV is one of the most common causes of childhood illness. It’s so common that most children have been infected by age 2. Symptoms are generally minor and mimic the common cold, however, for some infants and older adults, RSV can be severe. RSV can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, or bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airway passages entering the lungs. The CDC estimates 58,000 children are hospitalized each year due to RSV, though deaths in children under five are thought to be uncommon. For adults age 65 and older, RSV infections lead to 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths a year. Testing is necessary to confirm an RSV diagnosis because symptoms overlap with many other respiratory infections.
Symptoms of RSV usually appear within four to six days after exposure. Symptoms of RSV infection usually build gradually and may include:
- Runny nose
- Decrease in appetite
- Fever (Note: not all children will get a fever with an RSV infection.)
In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties.
Most people recover from an RSV infection within a week or two, but some people are more likely to develop a severe infection, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia, and may need to be hospitalized. Infants and older adults are at the greatest risk for severe illness. Infants, especially those born prematurely and those younger than six months, are at risk because their tiny bodies aren’t yet strong enough to clear the excess mucus from their airways. This causes trouble breathing which can lead to difficulty eating and drinking. Adults over age 65 are at risk because their immune systems aren’t as strong as healthy, young adults. In addition, children and adults with heart and lung disease, children with neuromuscular disorders, and anyone with a weakened immune system are also at increased risk. RSV can make their conditions worse. For example, a patient with asthma may have an asthma attack, or a person with heart failure may experience more severe symptoms.
When to Go to Urgent Care
While the majority of people do not need to see a doctor if they think they have RSV, there are times when a visit to your primary care physician or an urgent care center is warranted. You should see a doctor if you or your child are not drinking enough fluids and may be dehydrated or have a worsening cough or other symptoms. A high fever, wheezing and labored or rapid breathing are other symptoms that should be checked out.
Your provider at ClearChoiceMD Urgent Care can test to determine if RSV is causing your symptoms. Testing is most accurate during the first few days after symptoms begin when the viral load is highest.
When to Go to the Emergency Room
You should seek immediate medical help if your child has trouble breathing, is drowsy, or has lips or fingernails that look blue.
Treating RSV at Home
People with mild or moderate RSV should stay home until they feel better. Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, use pain relievers and fever reducers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen when needed, and get plenty of rest. You can help your infant feel more comfortable by using nasal saline with gentle suctioning. Try to suction your baby’s nose before a feeding to make it easier for them to breathe. A cool-mist humidifier will also help to break up mucus so they can breathe easier.
There is currently no vaccine for RSV, but researchers are working on one. They are also developing medications and antivirals to treat the virus. For now, focus on what you can do to stay healthy: wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, including toys. If you have young children, keep them away from anyone who has recently been sick. A friend or relative may not think to mention if they had a minor cold, so ask because a minor cold in an adult or older child could be a serious case of RSV in an infant.