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Respiratory Syncytial Virus In Babies – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

5 min read

Does your child wake up with a stuffy nose and little labored breathing? Is he below two years old? Did you dismiss the symptoms as common cold? In no way neglect the symptoms thinking it as a common cold, your child can be infected with the respiratory syncytial virus.
Baby with RSV

What Is A Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes highly contagious infection of lungs and respiratory tract among infants. Most of the children, before their second birthday are found to get infected at least once by this virus.
Usually, in normal healthy children this virus causes no more trouble than a cold does. But in a premature infant or in a child with underlying health conditions which affects his immunity, heart or lungs, the impact of the respiratory syncytial virus can be much greater.

What Are The Risk Factors That Make Respiratory Syncytial Virus Attack More Dangerous?

Respiratory syncytial virus infection can often develop into pneumonia and bronchitis which can put the life of the child in jeopardy if:

  • The child is born prematurely
  • The child has a weakened immune system
  • The child is below ten weeks old
  • The child is born with heart or lung disease
  • The child who is not strong enough to fight off the infections

The majority of children hospitalized for RSV infections are below six months old.

How And When Does Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection Occur?

This infection found to occur more often in the fall and winter (November to April). Babies often get it from their school-going siblings who carry the virus home from school. Babies, when taken to crowded conditions like shopping malls or put in day care centers, are more prone to get the infection.

How Does Respiratory Syncytial Virus Spread?

  • The respiratory syncytial virus spreads through contact- either directly from person to person or indirectly by touching the objects or surfaces infected with the virus
  • It usually enters the body of the child through nose or mouth
  • The infectious respiratory secretions such as droplets of a cough, sneeze or nose blows spread the virus to the surrounding
  • The virus can live for more than half an hour on the hands, nearly five hours on the surfaces and for several hours in a tissue used by the infected person
  • Touching the contaminated toys, counter-tops, doorknobs etc. or simply rubbing the nose and eyes or putting fingers in the mouth or eating food without washing the hands properly will make your child acquire the virus
  • An infected person is most contagious during the first few days but they are also found to shed the virus for a week also

What Are The Symptoms Of Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections?

Even though most of the symptoms are similar to cold, if your child falls into the risk category explained above, closely watch for the following symptoms. If your child shows more than one of these symptoms then it is better to take him to his doctor. The symptoms are:

  • Labored breathing
  • Cough
  • High fever
  • Thick discharge from nose
  • Rapid breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Refusing breast feeding or bottle feeding
  • Signs of dehydration like no urine in the diaper for six hours

If the child has Blue tint on fingernails or lips immediate medical attention is needed.

How Can Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection Be Prevented?

As the infection spreads through contact, this infection can be prevented to a certain extend by:

  • Washing the hands: Wash your (or whoever touch your baby) hand thoroughly before giving your baby a hug or before holding him. This is extremely necessary to follow when your baby is born prematurely or had a weakened immunity. So, insisting the others to wash their hands before touching your baby is significant. Here is how this habit can be inculcated in kids
  • Avoid contact with school going siblings: Keep away the school-going sibling showing the symptoms of even a bad cold from the baby until the symptoms evade completely. Never let them kiss their little brother or sister before taking a body wash after returning from the school
  • Monthly injection of antibodies: Some doctors suggest a monthly injection of medicines with the RSV antibodies during the peak time of (for five months) infections in some cases, depending on the demand of the health condition of the baby. The protection given by the injection is short termed and hence, it will continue till the baby is strong enough to fight the infection his own
  • Avoid exposure: Avoid taking your infant to crowded areas like shopping malls and air-conditioned halls or theaters where the public gathers. Most of the infectious disease are found to spread in such crowded conditions
  • Keep things clean: Using a disinfectant, clean surfaces like counter tops, floor, bathroom, doorknobs etc. Make sure the toys with which your baby plays are clean by washing it regularly. Do it especially if his playmate shows symptoms of cold
  • Avoid tobacco smoke: Tobacco smoke can aggravate the symptoms. So do not allow anyone to smoke near your child

How Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection Diagnosed?

If your child comes under risk category and when the doctor suspects RSV infection during the physical exam, then your doctor will collect mucus sample from your baby’s nose and send for a lab test. The test results can confirm the viral infection.

What Is The Treatment For Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections?

Because there is no treatment available for treating the RSV virus, thus the approach adopted involves containing the symptoms and minimize its effects on the respiratory system. Also, since no vaccine is yet available for the infection, some doctors may prescribe a medicine called palivizumab to protect babies who are at a higher risk.

Hospital care For Treating Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections:

Babies with severe symptoms are treated in hospitals. As we already discussed, RSV infection has a dangerous impact on infants with low immunity level. So these babies need continuous medical attention and are admitted to the hospital for treatment.

  • In the case of dehydration intra venous fluids are given
  • Oxygen treatments and bronchodilators are given to ease the breathing
  • Some babies may be given medications to open the airways
Home Care For Treating Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections:

Babies showing minor symptoms can be treated at home as follows:

  • Keep the baby well hydrated
  • Slightly elevate the head portion of the baby while lying down by inserting a soft towel between mattress and crib spring. This will help him breathe without much effort
  • Keep your baby away from any kind of smokes or irritating fumes or fresh paints or nail polish removers
  • Put a few drops of nasal saline solution to loosen the mucus and with a bulb syringe suck the loosened mucus out. This will help the baby to breathe more effortlessly
  • Use cool mist vaporizer instead of the steam humidifier as the baby is too small for it and can cause harm

Why Is RSV Less Of A Health Concern For School-aged Children?

School-aged children (without any other health issues) have a stronger immune system. They have a better-developed chest wall and bigger breathing passages. They can also cough up and eliminate the mucus (which small children can’t). So, the chances of developing dangerously obstructed and inflamed air ways are much less.
Good news is that scientists are working hard to develop a vaccine against RSV and we can hope it will come out soon.

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