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RSV in children: symptoms, treatments, prevention strategies

OHSU physician warns of unusually early season for a common virus that can cause cold-like symptoms: early respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV
Mildred Matthews, 4, of Beaverton, Oregon, gets her COVID-19 vaccination at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, administered by a nurse, while sitting next to her mom.
Mildred Matthews, 4, of Beaverton, Oregon, came to OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital on June 25, 2022, with her mother, Suzanne Gray, to receive her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Staying up to date on all routine vaccinations, including flu shots and COVID-19 boosters, are ways to keep children safe and healthy. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

With changes in weather and the return to school and other indoor activities, fall is predictably a time when more children have viral respiratory illnesses. While these illnesses generally do not result in hospitalization, this year more of these infections have resulted in a higher number of children requiring admission to hospitals in Oregon and across the country, according to clinicians at Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

Judy Guzman-Cottrill, D.O., stands near greenery at OHSU.
Judy Guzman-Cottrill, D.O. (OHSU)

During the pandemic lockdowns, babies and young children were protected from common illnesses, says Judith A. Guzman-Cottrill, D.O., professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) in the OHSU School of Medicine. As restrictions eased, their immune systems might not have been as prepared to fight these viruses, which may be resulting in an increase in infections and hospitalizations this year.

Now, Guzman-Cottrill warns, hospitals around the country are seeing an unusually early spike in RSV, with more children being hospitalized than typically seen. However, thus far, Oregon RSV activity is not higher than OHSU clinicians expected, and is being monitored closely.

“Caring for a sick child can be distressing, and we want to assure parents that RSV is a common childhood virus. Most cases can be treated at home, but those few children who do require hospitalization receive supportive care and fully recover,” Guzman-Cottrill said. “The best thing parents can do is continue to practice the good health and hygiene habits we’ve learned over the past several years, including frequent handwashing, avoiding contact with anyone who is sick and staying up to date on all vaccines.”

While most cases of RSV are mild and resolve at home within a few weeks, OHSU clinicians emphasize the importance of understanding RSV, its symptoms and treatments, and how to stay safe and healthy this fall.

Questions and answers

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. RSV is common, and almost all children will have had an RSV infection by age 2.

Who is at risk?

While anyone can be infected with RSV, those at greatest risk for severe illness from RSV include young infants, especially those 6 months and younger, and children younger than 2 who have chronic conditions or weakened immune systems.

What are the symptoms?

People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within four to six days after getting infected. Symptoms of RSV infection usually include runny nose, decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever or wheezing. Serious symptoms that might indicate the need for emergency care could include trouble breathing, trouble eating due to rapid breathing, wheezing, severe dehydration or lethargy.

What should I do if I think my child is infected?

Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two and can be managed with proper feeding, hydration, sleep and use of over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers. Infants might need frequent suctioning of nasal secretions. Some cases, however, may require hospitalization or more specialized care. Parents should call their health care provider for guidance if their child is exhibiting any serious symptoms.

How can I keep my child safe and healthy?

The best thing parents can do to keep their children healthy and safe is to practice all the measures that were emphasized during the pandemic: wash hands frequently, clean and disinfect surfaces, avoid contact with those who are sick, and stay up to date on all routine vaccinations, including flu shots and COVID-19 boosters.

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