Pediatrics

As RSV Cases Rise Among Kids, How to Spot Symptoms and Prevent Illness

A child blows her nose into a tissue.

By Connecticut Children’s and Nuvance Health

10/26/2021

CCMC and Nuvance Health Alliance
Connecticut Children’s and Nuvance Health recently combined forces to make it easier for parents to get the care they need for their children in western Connecticut and New York’s Hudson Valley.
Amid all the concern about COVID-19 and the Delta variant, you may have heard about another virus on the rise in the United States: RSV.


On one hand, RSV is nothing new. If your child is over the age of 2, they’ve probably had it at least once. As an adult, you might get sick with it every few years.

On the other hand, RSV can be serious for infants and very young children. And children’s hospitals in parts of the country have treated a record number of RSV cases this summer during a time of year when they usually see zero.

What do parents in Connecticut need to know? Connecticut Children's explains.


What is RSV?

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It’s one of many viruses that cause respiratory illness, infecting the nose, throat and lungs. It’s very common, and known for spreading easily in daycares and schools. But for infants and children under the age of 2, it can be serious and even life-threatening.

 

When are babies and children at the greatest risk from RSV?

RSV can be serious or even life-threatening for:

  • Infants (under age 1)
  • Very young children (under age 2)
  • Kids with certain health issues, like a lung condition or weakened immune system


It’s the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis in children under age 1 in the U.S.

 

How does RSV affect older kids?

For most healthy kids over the age of 2 (and adults), RSV typically causes nothing worse than a cold. That’s because, as kids age, their bodies tend to do a good job fighting off infection from RSV. Plus they’ve already built up some immunity from previous exposures.

 

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Mild symptoms are often similar to a common cold. These include:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Mild headache
  • Cough
  • Mild fever

Since these symptoms can be hard to distinguish from COVID-19 or a common cold, you should keep your child home and call their doctor for guidance.


Severe symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Fast breathing
  • High fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Weakness, irritability or confusion


Parents of infants or very young children, or kids with special health issues, should be especially alert to severe symptoms. Call a doctor right away, or bring your child to the emergency room.

 

How is RSV treated?

For mild cases, your child’s doctor may simply tell you to keep your child home, monitor their symptoms, and make sure they get plenty of rest and fluids. In most kids, RSV goes away on its own in a week or two, without special medical treatment or even a test to confirm whether it was RSV or just a common cold.

For more serious symptoms, your child’s doctor may order a special test to diagnose RSV, and have a plan of treatment ready in case any breathing problems develop.

 

If RSV is so common, why have I been hearing about it in the news lately?

Every year, we expect to see a rise in RSV cases in kids. But outbreaks usually occur in the cold weather late fall through early spring.

This year has been different. Starting in May and June, parts of the U.S. reported a rise in infant hospitalizations due to RSV. Southern states like Texas have been hit the hardest, but lots of other states, including Connecticut, have seen more cases than we’d usually expect at this time of year. (We usually expect zero summertime cases.)

 

What is causing the early spike in RSV cases? Is it connected to COVID-19?

We don’t know for sure, but we have some theories.

When remote schooling and strict COVID-19 safety measures were in place last winter and spring, they also prevented other illnesses, including RSV. Lots of kids never came into contact with RSV, or if they did, they didn’t get sick because of masks and social distancing. As a result, RSV infections were abnormally low. (So were flu infections.)

But this summer, as safety measures relaxed and people started getting together again, RSV could circulate more freely. For many kids under the age of 2, it was their first-ever exposure to RSV which makes them particularly vulnerable to catching it and getting sick. The spike in RSV numbers may reflect that extra “backlog” of first-time infections.

 

Should parents be worried about RSV cases surging in Connecticut and New York?

While we have seen more RSV infections than usual for summer, our region’s overall numbers have remained low so far. As the community ramps up prevention efforts against the Delta variant, the return of indoor masks and social distancing may help to keep RSV numbers low. The same measures prevent both COVID-19 and RSV, as well as many other viruses.

For now, my advice for parents is simply to be aware of RSV, follow the prevention tips below, and call your pediatrician if your child becomes sick.

 

How can parents and kids stop the spread of RSV?

Similar to COVID-19 and the flu, RSV spreads very easily through mouth and nose droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. It can also survive on surfaces, infecting someone who touches a contaminated surface.

Unlike COVID-19, there is no vaccine to prevent against RSV. But your family can take other (very familiar) steps to prevent the spread of this illness.

  • Wash hands often and well with soap and water.
  • Make sure everyone covers their mouth when they cough or sneeze, either by coughing into a tissue or their elbow.
  • Regularly clean surfaces in your home that get a lot of contact, like doorknobs, light switches and the refrigerator handle. Read these tips for disinfecting your baby’s gear.
  • If someone in your family becomes sick, they should stay home and call a doctor. They should self-quarantine away from other family members as much as possible, especially infants and very young children (who are at the highest risk from RSV).

Any advice for dealing with RSV amid the Delta variant?

I know that parents already have a lot worry about right now.

Remember that the extra steps you’re taking to prevent COVID-19 like masks in indoor public spaces and social distancing will also protect your child against the spread of RSV, flu and other illnesses. Please keep staying the course.

And if you haven’t already, make sure every eligible child and family member gets fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Staying healthy keeps your immune system strong to fight off other illnesses too.

 

Connecticut Children’s and Nuvance Health recently combined forces to make it easier for parents to get the care they need for their children in western Connecticut and New York’s Hudson Valley. They are the regional experts in pediatric medicine — and Nuvance Health is proud to help bring that expertise right to your family. For information the pediatric alliance, visit the news announcement and get to know connecticutchildrens.org.