Employee & Community Health

Take steps to prevent RSV from hurting your family

11/2/2017 by Dr. Robert M. Jacobson

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We still don't have a vaccine to prevent respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). We certainly wish we did. All of us get RSV; more than 80% of us get it before we turn two. And we keep getting it over and over throughout childhood and adulthood. 

What's RSV?

This virus can cause cough and cold symptoms. It can cause fever and lead to ear and sinus infections. It can infect the eyes and lungs. 

RSV is particularly bad for older adults and those whose immune systems are compromised. It's estimated that RSV may be responsible for as many as 25% of wintertime deaths that before had been blamed solely on influenza. 

In children under two, it causes a wheezy type of lung infection, called bronchiolitis. The infant looks and sounds like they are having an asthma attack. Unlike asthma, the child doesn't respond to asthma medicines. 

Premature babies and babies with underlying health conditions may need to go to the hospital due to RSV. There, doctors and nurses can support them with intravenous fluids and oxygen. 

How can we prevent RSV?

While we don't have a vaccine yet, we do have a medicine that gives temporary immunity. Palivizumab is a very expensive medicine that has to be given as an intramuscular injection once a month. High-risk babies get it from November to March. Even so, palivizumab doesn't work very well. We still have to vaccinate 17 or more babies a month just to prevent one hospitalization. And it has never been shown to prevent a death from RSV. 

What can you do to prevent RSV?

There are some things you and your family can do to prevent RSV. Most people get it from direct contact, and it survives for hours. So treat your hands like major sources of infection for RSV. Wash them with soap and water and teach your family to wash. Everyone should be washing their hands before eating, touching their eyes, nose or mouth, preparing meals and after greeting people. 

If you are ill with what seems like RSV, stay home until your fever is gone for 24 hours, cover your cough, and wash your hands. Most people are infectious for three to eight days, while infants can be infectious for a month. 

By washing your hands, covering your cough and staying home from work or school if you're sick, you can control RSV's effect on you and your family. 

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 Programs.