What Parents Should Know about RSV

A mother with a sick infant

Fall and winter are busy times on South Shore Hospital’s pediatric unit.

A large portion of our admissions during this time of year are due to respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia, asthma and bronchiolitis. Bronchiolitis is an infection of the lungs that causes inflammation and swelling in the small airways of young children. 

There are many viruses that cause bronchiolitis but the most common we see is Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV.

RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis in children under the age of one, according to the CDC. In older children and healthy adults, the virus usually presents itself as a common cough and cold. However, younger infants and children can have more severe cases.

When a young baby’s tiny airways are inflamed or full of mucous, it can cause severe distress that alarms parents, and can require hospitalization. 

Here are some answers to questions parents frequently have about RSV.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Symptoms of RSV often include:

  • Cough and nasal congestion
  • Fast breathing
  • Increased work of breathing, including tugging with other muscles, such as shoulders and chest muscles
  • Inability to eat (babies have difficulty coordinating suck, swallow and breathe with increased mucus production)
  • Irritability 

Occasionally, but not always, a low-grade fever of around 100 degrees may be present as well.

What should I do if I suspect my baby has RSV?

Your first step should be to contact your pediatrician’s office.

Just as South Shore Hospital’s team has a lot of experience with RSV, so too does your child’s doctor. They’ll get you in quickly. Your pediatrician may monitor your baby closely every day for a few days, or, if your baby’s vital signs are a cause for immediate concern, send you to the hospital for care.

Of course, if your child is in extreme distress, call 9-1-1.

How does RSV progress?

The course of illness is different in each child. Some may be sick for only a few days, others for a full week. But we typically see cases of RSV get worse before they get better (just like the common cold).

If a child is diagnosed on Day 2, mostly likely the virus will get worse before it gets better.

Your pediatrician will closely monitor your child and, if needed, direct you to the emergency room for further care. 

How do you treat RSV?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for RSV other than letting the virus run its course.  

We provide supportive care to infants during their stay. We suction their nose, make sure they can eat, provide chest physical therapy to help break up the mucus and induce coughing, and provide IV fluids to help your baby stay hydrated if he or she is unable to eat. 

However, if a child is still struggling to breathe and needs additional intervention, South Shore Hospital is one of the few hospitals outside of Boston that offers a high-flow nasal cannula for babies, which delivers flow and oxygen to support breathing.

The Pediatric Emergency Department and inpatient department is staffed 24/7 by board-certified pediatricians and hospitalists from Boston Children's Hospital.

In the rare case that an infant needs more care that we can provide here in Weymouth, our experienced team will transfer the baby right to Boston Children’s Hospital.

We are fortunate to safely treat children on the South Shore with the expert care of Boston Children’s. 

How can I help my baby avoid RSV?

First of all, it’s never a parent’s fault if their baby gets RSV. The virus is spread by tiny droplets, and it can live on surfaces for hours, no matter how much disinfecting you do. It could be just bad luck.

But there are some steps you can take to minimize your child’s risk, which is especially important for babies three months of age or younger:

  • Wash your hands: We can’t emphasize this enough! It helps everyone during cold and flu season. Wash your hands after coming in from public places or being with someone who is sick. Visitors should wash their hands too.
  • Keep visitors to a minimum: Everybody wants to see the newborn, we know. But ask visitors to hold off until after cold and flu season is over. 
  • Sick visitors should stay away: If someone wants to visit and is sick, tell them not to come. If they are insulted — too bad! 
  • Kiss your baby’s toes: We know that a baby’s cheeks are nearly irresistible. But by keeping your kisses away from baby’s face, you reduce the risk of transferring germs from your face to your baby’s nose or mouth.

Along with the effects it has on a young baby, bronchiolitis can be a terrifying experience for parents. But with quick intervention and skilled, supportive care, most babies are feeling better within a couple of weeks.

Learn more about Pediatrics and Emergency Care at South Shore Health.