Employee & Community Health

Is it a cold, influenza, asthma or RSV?

11/14/2016 by Dr. Robert M. Jacobson


Is it a cold, influenza, asthma 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 a: 

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Mild cough
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever of 100.4 F. (38 C.) or higher

RSV is 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 57,500 children younger than five are hospitalized due to RSV infection. 

Bronchiolitis can mimic asthma, and your clinician may consider that diagnosis. Unlike asthma, however, asthma medications like albuterol and steroids do not shorten the course of bronchiolitis or make the infant healthier. In most cases, all we can do for a child with bronchiolitis is make sure he or she is comfortable and well hydrated. 

If the infant has a severe case, he or she may need to be admitted to a hospital for care. Call 911 to arrange for emergency transportation if your infant: 

  • Stops breathing
  • Starts to turn blue or very pale
  • Has a very hard time breathing
  • Starts grunting
  • Looks like he or she is getting tired from having to work so hard to breathe

Call your Care Team for help if: 

  • Skin sucks in between the ribs when the child breathes
  • Nostrils flare when breathing
  • Your child is less than three months of age and has a fever of 100.4 F. (38 C.) or higher
  • There are fewer wet diapers than normal

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 (CPAM) and is the medical director of the ECH and Southeast Minnesota Region Immunization Program.