Winter often heralds the onset of multiple colds and inevitably the flu. We are in the thick of it right now for sure. But, a less talked about virus puts infants less than 6 months old at particular risk for breathing problems during these winter months. And unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for it.
It's called RSV (aka respiratory syncytial virus) and it peaks during mid-winter and typically disappears by spring time.
Who gets RSV?
We all do. Most of us are infected with RSV by the time we reach 2 years of age and many of us are re-infected yearly when this virus once again makes its seasonal rounds. Thankfully, as children get older the symptoms of RSV simply resemble that of a common cold.
However, babies are a different story.
What happens to infants who get RSV?
RSV is the major cause of bronchiolitis in infants. This starts out looking like a run of the mill cold but quickly progresses to a worsening cough, followed by difficulty breathing and wheezing. Inflammation and blockage of the small airways (bronchioles) as a result of this infection put infants at increased risk for these asthma like symptoms and/or pneumonia.
Premature babies, infants less than 6 months old, babies exposed to second-hand smoke, and those who attend daycare are at even greater risk of complications related to RSV bronchiolitis.
How is it treated?
The good news is that most babies and children infected with RSV will recover relatively quickly (typically one week) after a short bout of bronchiolitis. The bad news is that there is no reliable or consistently effective treatment for babies who are wheezing or having difficulty breathing due to RSV bronchiolitis.
Treatment for such babies is aimed at supportive care until their infection resolves. This often involves a trial of inhaled bronchodilators (like albuterol) under close supervision. Hydration is a key component of supportive care, as infants with active bronchiolitis can quickly become dehydrated due to the increased work of breathing and decreased oral intake.
Some babies require hospitalization for further supportive care like supplemental oxygen and close observation.
Since there is no specific cure or vaccine for RSV, prevention during these winter months is crucial. If you have an infant less than 6 months olds during peak RSV season (November-April) be sure to take extra caution and avoid exposure to other sick individuals. Make frequent hand washing a must and avoid exposing your baby to second-hand smoke.
If your baby was born prematurely ask your pediatrician about a special medication called Synagis. This is given in monthly injections to at-risk infants (premature and those with heart and/or lung disease) during the RSV season in hopes of preventing, postponing, and/or minimizing the severity of an RSV illness.
Dr. Mom's bottom line^We're in the thick of RSV season. If you have an infant less than 6 months old, take special precautions to avoid exposing your baby to this potentially serious disease.