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What to know about RSV: Symptoms and treatment

When it’s more than just a cold

Every year during cold and flu season, you might notice parents of young children or infants worried about something called RSV — which is short for respiratory syncytial virus External Site. RSV can affect everyone, including adults, but can be especially dangerous for young children, infants, and older adults with chronic conditions.

It's also extremely contagious, because it's transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Children commonly get it in a school or childcare setting, and can pass it to their parents and younger siblings. That's why it's especially important during the winter months to practice good hand-washing and avoid close contact with others when they're sick, if possible.

Symptoms of RSV in adults and babies

Most people don’t know they have RSV when they get it. It’s a common, upper-respiratory virus that often brings about run-of-the-mill cold symptoms, like:

  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • A mild fever

However, RSV can cause more serious lung infections like bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under the age of two — especially if they were born prematurely, have a chronic heart or lung condition, or have otherwise weakened or compromised immune systems.

That’s why it’s important to know what symptoms might require a trip to urgent care or the hospital — and how to keep your child comfortable at home.

How to treat RSV symptoms in your child

Unfortunately, there’s no specific treatment for getting rid of RSV. Most infections usually clear up within a week or two, but can last up to three weeks. You can keep your child comfortable at home by using a cool-mist humidifier, removing nasal discharge with saline drops and a bulb syringe, offering fluids throughout the day, and using fever-reducing medication.

When to call the doctor about RSV symptoms

RSV can last for a few weeks, and may never progress beyond normal cold symptoms.

However, you should call your child’s pediatrician if your child:

  • Develops bronchiolitis — symptoms to watch for include breathing rapidly, having trouble breathing (such as pausing between each breath), wheezing or producing a whistling sound while breathing, and developing a severe cough
  • Shows signs of dehydration — produce little to no tears when crying, have cool and dry skin, and have less than one wet diaper every 8 hours
  • Shows signs of infection — cough up green, gray or yellow-colored mucus
  • Isn't themself — act unusually irritable or upset or are significantly less active and alert than normal
  • Refuses fluids — this includes breastfeeding, bottle feeding, milk and water
  • Has a high fever — above 104 degrees for a child of any age
  • Has symptoms that don’t improve — though RSV can last a few weeks, if symptoms stay the same or worsen after seven days or more, it could be a sign of a bacterial or ear infection
  • Is less than six months old — younger babies are more at risk for complications from RSV, as they may not be able to fully clear mucus from their airways

Depending on the severity of your child’s symptoms, their pediatrician or an on-call nurse may recommend going to urgent care or the emergency room for further evaluation. They also may recommend hospitalization if your child is having trouble breathing or is at risk of becoming dehydrated.

When to take a baby with RSV to the hospital

If your infant or young child appears very tired, breathes very rapidly (more than 70 breaths per minute), or has a blue tint to their lips or fingernails, call 911 or go the emergency room right away.

Sick baby keeping you up at night?

BeWell 24/7SM will connect you Opens New Window with a real person — even at two in the morning. Give them a call if you’re concerned about your child’s cold symptoms or want more tips to help them feel better.

BeWell 24/7 is available at no cost for most Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield members. It can help you get more from your health insurance when you need it. The people at BeWell 24/7 can help you with finding an in-network doctor, getting the right care, exploring treatment options, scheduling multiple specialist appointments and much more.

Just call Eight, Four, Four, Eight, Four, Be Well.