As if the annual cold and flu season weren’t enough to contend with, Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, also hits its peak from late fall through early spring. Symptoms resemble a moderate or severe cold, but for some people, the situation is much more serious.

In most people, RSV resolves on its own and doesn’t involve major health concerns. Virtually all children have RSV by the time they reach their second birthday.

It’s only a concern in very young infants, or children born prematurely at 35 weeks gestation or less. These children may have underdeveloped lungs or may not have gotten sufficient antibodies from their mother during pregnancy to fight off the disease.

For them, RSV can be serious and even life-threatening. Every winter, pediatric units around the country fill up with high-risk infants with RSV.

It can also be serious among adults who are coping with other health issues, especially those with heart or lung problems or immune system problems.

RSV is highly contagious and passes easily from person to person through daily contact and interaction. In most cases, the person will experience cold-like symptoms, such as a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, wheezing and coughing, low-grade fever and earache.

Babies may be listless, irritable or fretful, less interested in things, and have decreased appetite and trouble sleeping. Symptoms typically resolve in 10-14 days, much like a cold.

It is important to seek medical help immediately if you notice any of these symptoms: noticeably fast breathing at more than 60 times per minute; making a grunting noise when breathing; being unable to speak, cry or make sounds, sometimes accompanied by drooling; making an obvious effort to breathe: flaring nostrils or lifting the shoulders when inhaling; having a gray, mottled or blue color to the skin, fingernail beds, lips and earlobes; wheezing that lasts more than an hour in a baby younger than three months old, who acts as if they don’t feel well; and breathing that stops for longer than 15 to 20 seconds.

In some high-risk cases, physicians may prescribe medications to help prevent RSV, or at least lessen the severity of the disease. But in most cases, the best tips to avoid infection are similar to those already advised for avoiding spread of the flu or colds:

• Wash your hands frequently and make sure your children do the same.

• Keep children up-to-date on immunizations, especially diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus.

• Use disposable tissues and make sure they are discarded properly so nobody else has to handle them.

• If someone in your house is diagnosed with RSV, try to separate them from the rest of the family and increase hand washing and other precautions.

• If you smoke, stop. If you cannot stop, at least refrain from smoking around children. Secondhand smoke irritates the mucus membranes in the nose, sinus and lungs and makes the child more susceptible to infections.

There are studies that indicate breastfeeding can help protect babies from RSV infections or lessen the severity of infections.

Sometimes, parents with high risk kids will be advised to avoid crowds, keep older siblings with colds away from the infant until they’re well, and possibly even avoid placing the child in day care if there are other alternatives.

Viral testing can diagnose RSV, but usually the diagnosis is made based on symptoms and whether there is a known outbreak in the community. If

you have concerns about your child’s health, please contact your pediatrician.

Dr. Brent Rotton is the chief of staff at Northeastern Health System.

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