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Not a cold or a flu? It could be respiratory syncytial virus

Date: 1/30/2014

SPRINGFIELD – It usually arrives during the winter months, but it’s not the flu or a cold.

It’s the highly contagious virus known as respiratory syncytial virus, more often referred to as RSV, and it has already arrived in the local community, according to Baystate Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. Matthew Sadof.

Parents should not be overly alarmed because only a small percentage of youngsters will develop the severe disease and require hospitalization,” Sadof said.

RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year of age.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that each year some 75,000 to 125,000 children in the young age group are hospitalized with the infection. Almost all children are infected with the virus by their second birthday. RSV can also affect older children, teenagers and adults, especially those with compromised immune systems and others who are 65 and older.

Symptoms of RSV mirror the common cold – a runny nose, nasal congestion and fever. Some children may also wheeze. And there is no antibiotic for the virus which, like a cold, must run its course. For some infants and children who are at high risk, there is a drug called palivizumab to help prevent “severe” illness. However, the medication does not prevent RSV, and it cannot cure or be used to treat those already suffering from its severe effects.

“The best advice as we enter the RSV season is to talk with your child’s pediatrician to identify if he or she is at high risk and if palivizumab is an option to prevent possible severe illness,” Sadof said.

Infants and young children most at risk for severe RSV infection include:

• those with a history of prematurity;

• infants less than 6 weeks of age;

• those with congenital heart disease and chronic lung conditions; and

• those who suffer from immunodeficiency such as HIV, AIDS, cancer and transplant patients.

Because RSV can cause serious illness in some youngsters and it is so widespread, some doctors consider it to be “the most important childhood infection of the respiratory system.” Those often hospitalized have severe breathing problems or trouble feeding and drinking. In many cases, hospitalization only lasts a few days and recovery usually occurs in about one to two weeks.

RSV can be spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes sending virus-containing droplets into the air where they can infect a person who inhales them. Infection can also result by hand-to-nose, hand-to-mouth, and hand-to-eye contact. People with RSV are normally contagious anywhere from three to eight days.

For those children with RSV, it’s simply a matter of symptom management, Sadof noted. “Make sure your child is hydrated and drinking well, his or her fever is under control, and that they’re not having any trouble breathing,” he said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following to prevent exposure to RSV and other viruses, especially in the first few months of your child’s life:

• make sure everyone washes their hands before touching your baby;

• keep your baby away from anyone who has a cold, fever or runny nose;

keep your baby away from crowded areas (shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, etc.);

• keep your baby away from tobacco smoke;

• for high risk infants, participation in child care should be restricted during RSV season whenever possible.

“The good news is that most infants and children overcome RSV infections, which are often asymptomatic and go unnoticed,” Sadof said.

For more information on Baystate Children’s Hospital, visit