With the holiday season upon us, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) cases are at an all-time high, overwhelming pediatric hospitals around the country. RSV is a viral infection that is common and sometimes serious in babies. Whether you’re a birth mother or adoptive family, knowing the symptoms and when to get help can keep you and your baby safe. 

Below we’ve written a guide on everything you need to know about RSV, along with ways to ensure you and your baby are protected this holiday season.

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a respiratory infection that can affect people of all ages but is most serious when it occurs in babies. This is because babies’ airways aren’t as developed, so they can’t cough up mucus like older children and adults.

Their airways are also smaller, which can cause blockage, making it more difficult to breathe. In many adults and older children, RSV can result in cold-like symptoms, often associated with a cough. In babies, RSV can result in a more severe illness called bronchiolitis.

Babies that are diagnosed with bronchiolitis experience wheezing along with their cough. Since RSV is a virus, there is currently no medication to cure this illness. Doctors will recommend various treatments and remedies to help manage the symptoms until the infection passes.

What Are the Symptoms of RSV?

In older children and adults, the symptoms of RSV can cause mild symptoms that resemble a cold. But in babies, the virus can make the symptoms more severe. The timeline of symptoms is between 4-6 days after exposure to the virus, but a baby may start experiencing symptoms earlier or later.

Symptoms of RSV to watch out for include:

  • Faster than normal breathing
  • Difficulty breathing and eating
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Lethargic or sluggish
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Labored breathing using chest muscles
  • Wheezing

It’s important to reach out to your pediatrician if you think your baby has RSV. Always seek medical attention if your baby appears to have trouble breathing. Emergency symptoms that require immediate medical attention include:

  • Dehydration, often resulting in a sunken fontanel (soft spot), dry diaper, or no tear production when they cry.
  • Difficulty breathing, specifically when you can see their ribs retract while they breathe.
  • Blue fingernails or mouth indicating that they are not getting enough oxygen and are in distress.
  • Fever greater than 100 degrees in babies younger than 3 months
  • Fever greater than 104 degrees, regardless of the child’s age.
  • Thick nasal mucus making it difficult for the child to breathe.

Can RSV be Prevented?

Although there is no official vaccine to prevent RSV among children and adults, Pfizer has announced that they are in the process of developing a maternal RSV vaccine that can protect infants from developing severe symptoms during the first six months after birth. The vaccine would be given to pregnant women in the third trimester and could protect infants during a critical window of vulnerability.

“We’re very hopeful everything can be done in time to vaccinate mothers before the next RSV season,” said Annaliesa Anderson, chief scientific officer of vaccine research and development at Pfizer. “We’re about to come into a very heavy RSV season. We’re seeing hospitals filling up. Everyone appreciates the urgency that can really help to prevent this.”

The antibodies this vaccine produces are transferred through the placenta to the fetus in-utero and later by breast milk to infants. During the clinical trial, the Pfizer vaccine was 69 percent effective after birth in preventing serious cases of illness.

“I think this is a big step for protecting babies against RSV and improving overall lung health,” said Barney Graham, a vaccine expert at Morehouse School of Medicine. “Overall it’s an exciting time for RSV. It’s also a troubling time, because you see how the patterns of infection have been changed by COVID, and we’re having an earlier, bigger season this year than we have for a couple of years.”

Pfizer plans to apply for approval of the vaccine before the end of the year with the hope that the vaccine could be available next winter.

How Does RSV Affect Adults and Pregnant Women?

For most adults, RSV is a mild case and typically resembles a cold. Some adults may develop a lung infection or pneumonia as a result. If you’re pregnant, RSV infection can pose a significant risk for hospitalization and further complications. Knowing when to get medical attention and what precautions you can take will help keep you and your baby healthy.

According to a study, RSV in pregnancy is rare but may still result in severe infections. During the peak RSV season, here are some practices that you should take to help keep you and your family healthy, according to the CDC:

  • Wash hands often and for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with sick people
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • Clean and thoroughly disinfect surfaces
  • Stay home when you’re sick

Tips to Help Treat RSV at Home

Although there is no way to shorten the length of an RSV infection, there are some treatments you can try to help relieve some of the symptoms you or your baby may be experiencing. If your baby has RSV, it’s important to make sure they’re comfortable and try to distract them – by reading a book, cuddling or playing a game. Other tips to help relieve the symptoms of RSV include:

1. Create a moist environment

Although you can keep the house warm, it’s important not to keep it overheated. If the air seems dry, try bringing a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer into the room to help moisten the air. This can help ease any coughing or congestion that your child may be experiencing. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean to prevent bacteria and molds from growing.

2. Drink plenty of fluids

It’s important to provide your baby with as many fluids as possible. Continue to breastfeed or bottle feed your baby as you normally would. For older adults and children, keep water handy and ingest warm fluids such as soup, as this can help loosen any thickened mucus that may have built up. Ask your doctor about the appropriate fluids for your child’s age.

3. Utilize over-the-counter medicines whenever you can

Saline nose drops can help with congestion and a runny nose in babies, followed by a bulb syringe to temporarily remove any nasal secretions. Make sure to consult your doctor for instructions and recommendations on how to use nasal drops. Depending on your child’s age, you can also utilize over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Tylenol, which may help reduce fever and relieve a sore throat.

Make sure to consult your doctor about which medications are safe for your child’s age before using any cold and cough medications. It’s important to remember to consult your doctor before utilizing any of these home remedies. RSV can seem like a scary topic, but with the right preparation and knowledge, you’ll know what to look for and how to handle this seasonal illness.