It's that time of year again: sniffles and coughs and scratchy throats are everywhere. Parents are disinfecting and sanitizing and worrying about the flu all over the country. But there's another virus parents of young children and infants should be aware of. As Headline News anchor Lynn Smith found out, it can be easily confused for a run-of-the-mill cold and, if left untreated, can have dire consequences.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and, as Smith reported in a recent segment, sends 60,000 kids under age 5 to the hospital every year. RSV presents much like a common cold with sniffling, sneezing, and congestion and can become serious quickly—as she and her family learned last year.
Smith says her 7-week old son Ryder had been showing symptoms for a few days. "It started with a tiny cough about a week before everything went downhill," she explains. "The next day I brought him into the doctor since his brother had been sick but I was assured it was just a head cold from his big brother."
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Ryder's symptoms progressed and a few days later he developed significant congestion. Smith returned to the pediatrician who assured her again it was just a cold. She was advised to use suction to clear his nasal passages and to use a humidifier at night. "Two days later we went again because I thought I heard wheezing and, since my oldest has asthma, I felt I knew what that could sound like. The sounds were just attributed to his cough and they said his lungs sounded completely clear."
The next night, Smith recalls, he "couldn't eat and was breathing strange, I was up with him most of the night rocking him to bed." She took Ryder back to the pediatrician the next morning and they transferred her to the ER. Ryder was admitted to the pediatric ICU at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta (CHA) and within minutes was put on oxygen.
Courtesy Lynn Smith
According to Shilpa Patel, M.D. of Children's National Hospital in Washington D.C., mild cases of RSV are indistinguishable from the common cold. In susceptible patients, though, the mild upper-respiratory infection can migrate to the lower respiratory tract and cause bronchiolitis (inflammation of the bronchioles) or pneumonia. "This is more common in premature babies (those born before the gestational age of 37 weeks), newborn infants, and generally in children up to age 2 years. Inflammation of the smaller airways is referred to as bronchiolitis and when severe it can result in respiratory failure. In premature infants and newborns, RSV and other viruses have also been associated with apnea—or a temporary cessation of breathing."
Smith credits the staff and doctors at CHA to saving her baby's life and says before Ryder's hospitalization, she was only vaguely familiar with RSV from scary stories from friends of friends. "It was never mentioned in Ryder's well-check pediatrician visits...I never knew exactly what it was or warned what to look for," she says. "I am supposed to know these things, it's my job to be informed and bring these kinds of stories to the viewers and I had absolutely no idea."
Courtesy Lynn Smith
What Parents Need to Know About RSV
Autumn and winter are prime times for RSV. Like the flu, RSV hits its peak during the colder months of the year, but regional prevalence can vary. Dr. Patel advises parents to watch for the progression from upper respiratory symptoms to lower respiratory symptoms.
"Parents should worry if their child shows decreased interest in eating or drinking (breastfeeding or bottle feeding), is using their accessory chest muscles to breathe, is breathing faster than normal, shows decreased activity or interest in doing things or has shortness of breath," he explains. If your child is using accessory muscles, it will look like their neck muscles are moving when they breathe. Any signs of respiratory distress or difficulty should be addressed with a physician immediately.
For more information on RSV, visit the CDC website or discuss with your child's healthcare provider. Dr. Patels stresses, "If a parent is concerned, they should seek medical care."