Employee & Community Health

Protecting your child from RSV

11/2/2015 by Robert M. Jacobson, MD

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Is it a cold, influenza or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus)? RSV is common during fall, winter and spring. Many of the first symptoms are similar to those of the common cold or influenza. Infants and young children may have: 

  • Fever
  • Reduced appetite
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Wheezing

It's spread through coughing and sneezing and by touching surfaces that have RSV on them, then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Most children get RSV by the time they're two years old. Healthy children usually recover on their own within a week or two. 

RSV: more dangerous for some

However, RSV can cause severe lung infections, including bronchiolitis (infection of small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia. Each year in the U.S., an estimated 57,517 children younger than five are hospitalized due to RSV infection. Those who are at higher risk for serious illness include:

  • Premature babies
  • Children younger than two years old with chronic lung disease or certain heart problems
  • Adults 65 years and older
  • People with weakened immune systems, such as from HIV infection, organ transplants or specific medical treatments like chemotherapy

If your child has difficulty breathing, isn't drinking enough fluids or experiences worsening symptoms, contact your clinic's Care Team. 

While there is no vaccine to prevent RSV, there is a medicine - palivizumab - which is limited to just a few high-risk infants. Only about a half dozen quality each year, and your Care Team clinician will contact you if your infant qualifies. Palivizumab is given in a series of monthly shots starting in November and continuing no later than March. 

Tips for preventing the spread of RSV

You can help protect yourself, your child and others from RSV infection by following a few prevention tips:

  • Wash your hands often. Use soap and water for 20 seconds; help your young children do the same. If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 
  • Keep your hands away from your face. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. 
  • Avoid close contact with sick people. Avoid close contact, such as kissing and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who have cold-like symptoms. 
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, then throw the tissue in the trash. If you don't have a tissue handy, use the crook of your elbow. Be sure to thoroughly clean your hands after coughing or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces. Pay special attention to surfaces and objects people touch frequently, such as toys and doorknobs. 
  • Stay home when you are sick. Stay home from work, school and public areas when you are sick. Also, high-risk children have a greater change of being exposed at their school or child-care center, so limiting the time they spend there may help protect them during RSV season. 

Questions? Ask your Care Team 

If you have any questions about RSV or your child's risk for becoming seriously ill, contact your care team. 

Dr. Robert M. Jacobson is a primary care pediatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine and is the medical director of the ECH and Southeast Minnesota Region Immunization Program.