‘She was gasping for breath’: Moms share the ‘terrifying’ experience of having a baby hospitalized with RSV

Baby with RSV in the hospital on oxygen, next to a photo of smiling mom holding a baby
On the left: Shanisty Ireland's two-month-old son Asa in the hospital with RSV. On the right: Ireland holding Asa. (Photos: Shanisty Ireland, Rachel Jacobus)

At first, mom Sarah Driscoll thought her 6 week old baby girl Charley had a cold. It was only when her baby’s symptoms took a dramatic turn for the worse that Driscoll started to suspect her baby had RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) — a very common, contagious airborne virus that is currently surging throughout the U.S.

At first, “she was very congested and coughing,” Driscoll, who lives in Mass., tells Yahoo Life. But then her baby’s cough started getting more severe, to the point where Driscoll felt like she needed to keep Charley elevated all the time. “It was almost like she was choking on whatever was in her throat,” she says. “I felt like she was gasping for breath at times.”

Charley’s labored breathing left Driscoll feeling helpless. “It was terrifying,” she says, adding: “She’s my first and only.”

Driscoll had heard about RSV on social media, saying, “It was my biggest fear.” Although she didn’t know of any other children who had RSV at the time, Driscoll shares that “something in my gut told me my kid is going to have this.”

And she was right. Concerned about her baby’s belabored breathing, Driscoll took Charley to the emergency room and they immediately admitted her. Driscoll was told if she had put Charley to bed that night instead of going to the emergency room, “we wouldn’t have had her in the morning.”

Driscoll’s baby spent a week in the hospital, including several nights in the ICU, requiring oxygen. “She was on a feeding tube because they didn’t want her to choke,” Driscoll says. “They had to suction her lungs several times.” She adds: “It was agony watching her.”

Charley made a full recovery, but Driscoll says she will think about her baby’s health scare with RSV for years. “It’s something that has traumatized me,” she says.

Baby hospitalized with RSV, wrapped in blankets with a purple pacifier
Sarah Driscoll's 6-week-old baby Charley was hospitalized with RSV. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Driscoll)

Mom of five Shanisty Ireland had a similarly scary experience with her two month old baby Asa, after what seemed to be a cold turned out to be RSV. Ireland tells Yahoo Life the progression from a regular cold to more serious symptoms happened “extremely” rapidly.

After a normal day of running errands with her family, Ireland went for a 30-minute jog while her husband was home with the kids. In that short period of time, their baby Asa “went from having a cold to — boom! — we’re packing up and going to the children’s hospital,” she says. “It was very fast.”

Ireland had the peace of mind to take a video of her baby Asa’s distressed breathing and send it to her sister-in-law, who is a pediatric nurse practitioner. “She just told me don’t even go back to the pediatrician — go straight to the hospital,” says Ireland, who lives in Ohio. “I credit her with saving Asa.”

It also helped that Ireland and her husband had dealt with RSV before, so they knew the signs to look out for. Their older child Adam, now 6, has RSV at two months old — the same age as Asa — and had to be rushed to the emergency room because he was “gravely ill,” says Ireland.

After five days in the hospital, Asa started to recover and Ireland was able to take him home.

Family of five in neutral colors standing close together and smiling with greenery in the background
Ireland with her husband and five children, including baby Asa and her older son Adam — both of whom had RSV at 2 months old. (Photo: Rachel Jacobus)

What are the symptoms of RSV to look out for?

Given that there’s an unprecedented surge of RSV happening, it’s important to know the symptoms, particularly in small children since the infection can progress to respiratory distress, according to Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association and a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, Calif. (The same county that recently declared a health emergency due to RSV and the flu.) “Little babies and small children are always at risk and warning signs are always important to look for,” he says.

RSV can appear just like a regular cold — namely, “runny nose, reduced appetite, a little coughing, a little sneezing and fever,” El-Hasan tells Yahoo Life. “But it can cause respiratory problems like wheezing, especially in little kids, the elderly and anyone who is susceptible to chronic disease.”

Secondhand smoke at home also makes matters worse. Research shows it puts infants and young children at a higher risk of hospitalization for RSV, as well as increases the severity of the illness. By smoking, “you’re not just hurting yourself — you’re hurting everyone in the house,” says El-Hasan.

How is RSV treated?

Most RSV infections resolve on their own in one to two weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and can be managed with children’s acetaminophen for fever. If a child is wheezing, their doctor may prescribe albuterol, which is an inhaler also used to treat asthma, or they may prescribe steroids, says El-Hasan.

However, in some cases — such as with Ireland and Driscoll’s infants — RSV can cause severe infections, leading to bronchiolitis and pneumonia, according to the CDC. In fact, RSV is the most common cause of both bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children under 1 year of age. Though uncommon, in some cases RSV can be fatal. There are up to 500 RSV-associated deaths in children under 5 each year, according to the CDC.

‘You know your kid better than anyone’

Both Ireland and Driscoll urge parents not to second-guess themselves when their children are sick and to follow their instincts. “Even if your doctor tells you your kid is fine, you know your kid better than anyone,” says Driscoll. “So get a second opinion.”

El-Hasan agrees, suggesting to parents: “Trust your instinct if you think something is wrong with your kid or something just doesn't feel right — at least call someone and ask. I think that’s very important.”

But if symptoms are getting worse, Ireland says “don’t be afraid” to go directly to the emergency room. “If the breathing is getting more labored, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” she says. “If they're really struggling to breathe, not having a wet diaper and their lips are turning blue, there’s no reason to wait around because it could be dangerous.”

Driscoll and Ireland also encourage parents to set boundaries with others, including family members, to protect the health of their children, particularly during cold and flu season. “If you’re not comfortable with people who had a cold last week coming into your home, you can say, ‘Maybe it’s better to come another time or in the spring when we’re past all this sickness,’” says Ireland. “A lot of women, especially moms, don’t want to say no, but we have every right to advocate for our child’s well-being.”

El-Hasan says that, since RSV is spread through the air as well as through contact, frequent hand washing is important. “If you’re sick, don’t kiss other people,” he adds. “Maybe the fist bump and hand shake is the best way to go. If you’re going to touch your face, wash your hands before and after.”

As parents, Ireland says, “We cannot control how or when our children get sick, especially when you have other children. We can’t live in a bubble… The only thing we have control over as parents is the actions we take when they do get sick.”

For Ireland and Driscoll, their scary experiences with the respiratory illness have inspired them to keep talking to other parents about the symptoms of RSV, raising awareness. “It can literally happen to anybody,” Ireland says. “It can strike any household.”

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