What is RSV?
If you’ve never heard the words “RSV” consider yourself lucky.
RSV is a respiratory illness our little family knows all too well. To some, it may seem just like a common cold.
That’s how it presents itself in most people.
Unless, of course, it’s a baby. Then it’s a whole other story.
That cold that just was an inconvenience to you? Well, this is what can happen when a baby picks it up:
Those are both of my boys – both of which got RSV. Jack got it when he was two weeks old, Oliver five months.
No parent should be told there are dead people with higher oxygen levels than their two-week-old baby.
One of my biggest fears with Oliver was that he would get it, and that fear came true just a few weeks ago.
RSV is nasty. And it’s scary. And it’s something all new parents need to know about.
I had no idea what it was until Jack was admitted to the hospital with it, and it’s something I wish I didn’t know anything about! But I do, and after seeing first hand (two times) how scary it can be in a tiny little baby, I want to share that with others.
So, new parents, listen up.
Here’s what you need to know about RSV.
RSV (respiratory synctial virus) respiratory virus that is extremely contagious. It’s also very common and most children have it before the age of two.
While it may just appear as “the common cold” in many children, it’s also one of the most common reasons for hospitalizations of babies.
And you never know how your baby will react to it. They might just get the sniffles, or they may end up in the hospital like my boys.
The number one way to prevent it is to keep your child away from sick people. It gets harder when you have other kids who you can’t exactly keep cooped up all winter long. But the more you can keep your baby away from sick people the better.
Don’t be afraid to turn people away or to question if they’ve been sick lately.
And if you’ve been sick? Stay home. The best gift you can give a family with a new baby is to keep your germs to yourself.
Keep hand sanitizer around and make sure you (and your other kids) wash your hands vigilantly.
Heck, you may even want to keep some disposable face masks around the house, just in case someone does get sick (that you can’t banish from the house!
And even if you don't have a baby, if you or someone in your family has been sick, resist the urge to go see someone who has a baby in their home. RSV can be very serious - especially to preemie babies.
- Fever (if your baby is under three months, and they get a fever over 100.4, call their doctor immediately. I highly recommend the Exergen temporal thermometer. We now have the smarttemp thermometer, which will continually monitor baby through at the night.
- Cough (usually wet). With Oliver, it sounded like he was sneezing from his mouth.
- Poor eating
- Runny nose
So, it presents as a normal cold, and if they don't develop any other symptoms, you may never know it was RSV.
If they start to develop these symptoms, I recommend suctioning their nose (not with a bulb syringe. Those are pointless and can irritate the nose further - I highly recommend the Baby Buz Nasal Aspirator or the Nose Frida).
If it seems super thick, use some baby saline drops. Turn on a humidifier in their room. Keep them as hydrated as possible. Be sure to monitor their wet diapers closely to ensure they are not getting dehydrated (minimum of four very wet diapers a day.)
If you have an Owlet Baby Care Monitor, you can even track their oxygen while they sleep!
When Oliver had RSV, it actually alerted us that his oxygen was getting low. He was already on oxygen at night for sleep apnea, and his cold started getting worse.
I knew it was bad because his levels dropped super low. Another reason we are so grateful for this product (since it alerted us when he rolled under my at night, and eventually led to his sleep apnea diagnosis!)
The issue with RSV is that it can turn into pneumonia or bronchiolitis. With Jack and Oliver, they both developed the latter. Here are some of the symptoms of these things.
- Difficulty breathing - this can include retractions in the belly or neck area. Here is a video of a baby retracting. It's important to check their respiratory rate. For a newborn, a normal rate is 30-50 breaths per minute, and for an infant 1-12 months, 20-30 breaths per minute is normal. Oliver was breathing 60 breaths per minute by the time we brought him in.
- Coughing that gets worse and may induce choking or vomiting
- Loss of interest in eating
If your child is displaying these symptoms (especially the second set of symptoms), have them seen immediately. If it's after hours, go to the ER.
It's important to make sure your physician takes your seriously. We took Oliver in, and we saw a PA. She said, "Oh, it's just RSV."
RSV is a serious illness, and it should be taken seriously. Make sure they take your child's oxygen levels, and that they get a good, solid reading for a few minutes.
If it's in the low 90s when they are awake, this can be a sign that things will start going downhill. Oliver's was 91 in the doctor's office the day before he was admitted.
When he was admitted, it was in the 70s.
He looked so lethargic and miserable by the time we got to the hospital. And we soon found out that he not only had RSV, but Influenza A.
His doctor was shocked he looked as good as he did.
Which wasn't very good.
Because RSV is a virus, there really isn't a medication available for it - you can really just treat the symptoms.
When Oliver was in the hospital, they deep suctioned him throughout the day, did CPT (cough assistance) to help break up the mucus in his lungs, and gave him infant Tylenol to help with any pain (he also had Influenza A.) Humidifiers can help!
Oliver was also treated with albuterol and steroids to help speed up the healing process. They told us that it doesn't always help, but in Oliver's case, the steroids really seemed to help.
Be aware that these treatments can make your child jittery or agitated. He also is on a twice-daily inhaler now. His pulmonologist is hesitant to say he has asthma yet, but so far, it seems he's going in the same direction as Jack.
There is a vaccine for RSV but it is only available for preemies. Beyond that, prevention just comes down to washing hands regularly and staying away from sick people!
Complications of RSV
Most babies will recover just fine from RSV - it just hangs on FOREVER! When Jack had it, the doctors warned us that he would likely be more prone to respiratory problems in the future, which we've found to be true. He gets sick really easily, and he has also developed asthma.
(Update: Oliver was recently diagnosed with asthma as well, and his doctor believes it's because of his early exposure to respiratory illness).
Listen to your instincts. If you think something is wrong with your baby, go with your gut.
With both my boys, I knew something was wrong, and I sought a second opinion. BOTH times we had been seen earlier in the day by another doctor who dismissed our concerns.
I can't even think about what would have happened had I not listened to my instincts, seeing the shape he was in when he arrived at the hospital.
You know your baby better than anyone.
And when it comes to a baby, I don't think you can ever be too careful.
Originally written in 2016; updated in 2019
Katie is a Colorado-native, BYU graduated, and most importantly, wife to one and mother to three beautiful boys. She is passionate about sharing her experiences with others – especially about pregnancy, breastfeeding, cooking, and crafts. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She loves spending time with her family and helping others find joy in family life.