Largely seasonal, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) outbreaks occur during the winter months in temperate climates and the rainy months in tropical regions. Additionally, temperature, humidity and rainfall can influence the severity of RSV in infants.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), also called human respiratory syncytial virus (hRSV) and human orthopneumovirus, is contagious and causes respiratory tract infections. Infection rates are typically higher during cold winter months, causing bronchiolitis in infants, common cold in adults and more serious respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia in elderly and immunocompromised individuals.
RSV outbreaks occur largely during the rainy months in tropical regions and the winter months in temperate climates, which lead to endemics in late autumn, winter and early spring (between November and April with a peak in January to February). As such, meteorological factors including temperature, humidity and rainfall influence the severity of the disease in infants.
RSV is highly contagious and spreads through droplet transmission. When a person with the infection coughs or sneezes, secretions containing the virus from their respiratory tract are passed into the air.
Who gets RSV?
By the age of two years old, most children have already been infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV); however, they can get infected more than once. Children attending childcare centers or who have siblings attending school are at a higher risk of exposure and reinfection.
People at an increased risk of severe, or sometimes, life-threatening RSV infections include:
- Infants, especially premature infants or babies who are six months of age or younger
- Children who have congenital heart disease (heart disease that's present from birth) or chronic lung disease
- Children or adults with weakened immune systems from diseases such as cancer or diabetes, or from treatment such as chemotherapy
- Children who have neuromuscular disorders such as muscular dystrophy
- Adults with heart disease or lung disease
- Older adults, especially those who are 65 years of age or over
What are the symptoms of RSV?
- High-pitched whistling or wheezing noise when the child breathes
- Decreased activity/more tired than usual
- Decreased appetite
- Pauses in breathing
- Being unusually upset or inactive
- Cough with yellow, green or gray mucus
- Trouble breathing or pauses in their breath
- Infants refusing to breastfeed or bottle-feed
- Signs of dehydration (lack of tears when crying, little or no urine in their diaper for six hours and cool, dry skin)
- Runny nose
- Decrease in appetite
- Sneezing and coughing
- Fever (temperature higher than 100°F); fever may not always be present
Signs and symptoms of severe RSV in infants include:
- Short, shallow and rapid breathing
- Flaring (spreading out) of the nostrils with every breath
- Belly breathing (look for “caving in” of the chest in the form of an upside-down “V” starting under the neck)
- Bluish coloring of the lips, mouth and fingernails
- Wheezing (this can be a sign of pneumonia or bronchiolitis)
- Poor appetite
Can RSV be prevented?
With a lack of efficacious treatment options available for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections, the ideal approach to therapy is active prevention. RSV can be transmitted through droplets or direct contact with secretions, which can remain active on various surfaces and fabrics for several hours.
Methods to consistently reduce RSV transmission include:
- Cleaning counter surfaces doorknobs and children’s toys
- Regularly washing clothes and linens
Additionally, people should consider restricting their amount of exposure to crowded environments or daycare settings.
What home remedies can help treat RSV?
People with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), especially babies and children, require medical treatment; however, home remedies can help alongside treatment to reduce discomfort, which includes:
- Nasal saline with gentle suctioning to allow for easier breathing and feeding.
- Cool-mist humidifiers to help break mucus and allow for easier breathing.
- Fluids and frequent feedings. Parents should make sure their children stay hydrated. Infants with the common cold may feed more slowly or not feel like eating because they are having trouble breathing. Try to suction the baby's nose before attempting to breastfeed or bottle-feed. Supplementation with water or formula is unnecessary for breastfed babies. If it is difficult for the baby to feed at the breast, expressing breastmilk into a cup or bottle may be an option.
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen (if older than six months) to help with low-grade fevers. Always avoid giving aspirin or cough and cold medications to small children. Follow your doctor’s advice.