Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, is not new. Symptoms resemble the common cold, and typically clear up in 1-2 weeks, so most years it blends in to the range of cold-weather viruses that bring us a cough and congestion.
But for infants and young children, RSV can be more serious, and that’s why you are hearing about it in the news. A high rate of spread is causing a rise in pediatric hospitalizations, putting added pressure on hospitals already coping with high volumes of patients.
Below, Dr. Jennifer Murzycki, Chief of the Pediatric Hospitalist Program at Tufts Medicine Lowell General Hospital, answers commonly asked questions and concerns surrounding RSV and shares advice to keep your family safe.
Frequently asked questions about RSV
The symptoms of RSV typically start of slowly with some nasal congestion and a mild cough. Unlike viruses like the flu that come on quickly, RSV ramps up and peaks at the middle of the illness, typically 4-7 days out, then comes back down. At the peak stage, kids can have difficulty breathing and their breathing rate may become much faster, things we don’t typically see.
It’s because their airways are smaller. When RSV infection happens, it causes a build-up of mucus in those small airways, which can cause bronchiolitis (inflammation in the small airways) or pneumonia (infection in the lungs).
This year is definitely an outlier, and we’re not entirely sure why. It’s a well-studied illness. We know what works and what doesn’t. But this year, the severity and number of patients are significantly higher.
Whenever you have a concern, it’s always good to check in with your pediatrician. If their office isn’t open, they will have someone on call to answer questions and tell you the best place for your child. If you see your child breathing really fast, see them tugging under their ribs or neck muscles, or other signs of increased work to breathe, call your doctor. Infants will have so much congestion, they may have difficulty feeding and struggle to stay hydrated or feed well.
It’s very rare children will die, but they can have significant illness. They almost always will get better, but they can get very sick while they have it, and even require the ICU or a several day hospital stay for respiratory support.
Most of what we do for RSV we call supportive care. We provide extra respiratory support if they need it, some IV fluid or other form or hydration or nutrition if the child can’t feed well, and keep them comfortable.
There is no specific medication for RSV and there is no vaccine, so right now the best thing you can do is prevention, especially with the holidays coming. Older children can have it and it looks like a simple illness, but be aware it can be more serious in a newborn. Hand hygiene and masks are the best ways to prevent the spread of any virus.
At Tufts Medicine Lowell General Hospital, a hospital-based, board-certified pediatrician is available 24/7 to deliver medical care to children. Pediatric hospitalists treat children with both common and complex health conditions, and collaborate with subspecialists as needed to ensure the highest level of care. Learn more about our program here.