RSV- Don’t Panic?

This week’s guest columnists are Drs. Brian Allen and Chris Fontenot, Family Practice residents at University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.

Winter- the season of holidays, travel, and people congregating indoors. Friends and family share hugs, gifts, food, and germs.  Just as common as sharing good tidings and Mardi Gras are those three letters that strike fear into parents: RSV.

RSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus, is the most common cause of a condition called Bronchiolitis.  Bronchiolitis is an illness in babies and toddlers where the smallest airways in the lungs get inflamed, decreasing oxygen delivery to the bloodstream. Worsening inflammation causes a “whistling” sound as the air squeaks through those narrowed airways, a.k.a. wheezing.

Anyone can get RSV.  For people over age 2 and adults, it’s simply a cold.  Only babies under age 2 get bronchiolitis.  Even then, if your kid has RSV, don’t panic. Most babies have only a cold as well. RSV is rampant from November through April, particularly in January and February.  Also know that kids don’t stay immune to RSV: some unlucky babies get it twice in a season!

The basic symptoms of RSV are runny nose and congestion, cough, fever, and decreased appetite.  Babies with colds can have trouble feeding, because clogged noses make it hard to suck the bottle or breast, and breath.  More concerning signs of RSV, when we call it bronchiolitis, are rapid breathing (breathing 60-80 times per minute), wheezing, and worsening feeding.  Kids may have “retractions,” where the skin over the ribcage sucks in as they tug in breaths. Infants may grunt with every breath. Children with grunting, retractions, fast breathing, or worsening drinking need attention immediately.

RSV is highly contagious.  It travels on water droplets that are coughed, sneezed, or breathed out.  The virus lasts up to two hours after landing on surfaces like furniture and counters, where others can unknowingly touch, pick it up, and infect themselves.

“Your child tested positive for RSV” is a painful phrase for parents.  Parents ask, “Are you sure,” and “Will she have to stay in the hospital?”  The answer to “Are you sure”, weirdly, doesn’t matter!  As we alluded above, RSV isn’t the only virus to cause bronchiolitis, that condition with coughing, fever, wheezing, and  congestion- many others cause it too.  We don’t recommend testing most kids for RSV, since whether the test is positive or negative, what’s important is how your child is handling bronchiolitis, not which virus caused it.

The mainstay of treatment is “supportive care.”  The first support is hydration.  It’s important that children drink plenty, to keep mucus moist, thin, and easy to handle. When an infant or toddler can’t drink because of congestion, they begin to dehydrate.  Their mucus gets dried and sticky and gums up their already inflamed airways.

Breast milk or formula are best, but extra clear fluids can help.  Pedialyte is a good option for infants; its designed to hydrate babies if they can’t handle milk.  Babies tend to vomit with bronchiolitis when they gag on mucus and have upset stomachs from swallowing it, and Pedialyte is easier to absorb than milk. However, Pedialyte tastes a little too salty for older children, so these kids can hydrate with dilute juices and sports drinks.  If a kid just won’t drink, he may need admission for IV fluids.

Breathing also needs support.  Bedside humidifiers and nasal saline may help hydrate and thin mucus.  Elevating the head helps noses and upper airways stay clear too. When babies starts to struggle to breathe like we discussed above, need oxygen and other respiratory support, it’s time for admission.  Unfortunately, nebulizer breathing treatments don’t help.  Breathing treatments are often prescribed with bronchiolitis since the symptoms look like asthma, which treatments do help.  However, multiple studies have shown that nebulizers for bronchiolitis are a waste of time and money.

Finally, keeping your child isolated is important for others to not get RSV- it’s highly contagious, and the cough and “viral shedding” last for weeks.  No daycare until baby is fever free and coughing much less.

So don’t panic if your child has RSV. Like we said above, most kids will just have a nasty cold, only a few need hospitalization.  Fever medicine, fluids, patience, and TLC usually take care of it.

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