In a time when the world is overwhelmed by COVID-19, it is easy to minimize or forget other common ailments affecting our respiratory systems.  One example, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract infections in young children under 1 year old.  

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common virus that causes respiratory infections in young children.  In most healthy children, it causes an infection just like the common cold.  Symptoms of the common cold in babies include: cough, runny nose, irritability, change in appetite or energy, and fever.

It peaks during the winter months, October/November through to early spring. 

RSV spreads mostly by direct contact – the same way the common cold spreads.  Touching someone with an infection, or touching a surface that has been touched by someone infected is the most common way of getting RSV.  

Sometimes RSV can make children get very ill

In some cases, a RSV infection can develop into pneumonia or bronchiolitis (infections in the lungs or small airways).  About 3% of infants with an RSV infection get hospitalized.  

Symptoms of a more severe RSV infection include:

  • Usual symptoms of the common cold
  • Fast breathing
  • Flaring of nostrils
  • Grunting or wheezing when breathing
  • Head bobbing when breathing

Treatment of RSV infections

There is no cure for RSV.  Treatment is aimed at managing symptoms.  Usually RSV infections are treated in the home and the same way you treat the common cold.  

Antibiotics will not help an RSV infection.  

Prevention is the most important step!

There are steps to take to protect your infant from unnecessary exposure to viruses like RSV.  These can include:

  • Avoid contact with people with signs and symptoms of respiratory illness
  • Wash your hands often
  • Disinfect objects and surfaces regularly
  • Vaccinate your children and yourself
  • Avoid cigarette smoke
  • Breastfeed if you can

Certain high-risk infants may be offered a medication called palivizumab (Synagis®).   These may include infants with congenital heart disease or chronic lung disease or certain premature infants.  Your paediatrician will advise you if your child has an indication for palivizumab.  

These are challenging times we are facing.  No one is safe from COVID-19.  With all of our strategies in place with social distancing, let us do our part to flatten the curve.  In doing so, we may prevent the spread of other common viruses and save even more lives.  

This post was co-authored by Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc and Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP.