Winter Virus

The very contagious RSV is a common cause of respiratory illness in children

When kids return to school after Christmas break, they may be excited to share where they went, what they did, and what they got from Santa. Unfortunately, they are also very likely to share the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

“RSV is highly contagious,” says pediatrician Brandy Gheesling, MD, FAAP, of Pediatric Associates of Savannah, PC.  “It is spread by direct contact, such as hand shaking, or through the air by exposure to an infected individual coughing or sneezing near you.”

The months between November and April are the most common period of RSV infection, with the peak incidence being in January or February. In otherwise healthy children and adults, it mimics the common cold. Symptoms can include runny nose, decrease in appetite, coughing, wheezing, sneezing, fever, and conjunctivitis, or pink eye.

“In very young infants, it can be much more serious and can be associated with apnea, which is when breathing stops,” Gheesling says. Though rare, hospitalization may be necessary for infants less than three months of age.

Dr. Gheesling encourages supportive treatment for RSV. She doesn’t prescribe antibiotics because the symptoms are caused by a virus and not bacteria.

“I try to reassure anxious parents that, except for those very young infants or those with severe underlying medical conditions, RSV will act like the common cold,” Gheesling says. “Reasons to see me immediately would be if their children are having trouble drinking, are breathing very rapidly, or are having retractions, meaning that they are working hard to breathe with extra muscles in their stomach moving. Or if they develop a high fever or have a bluish color to their skin.”

Dr. Gheesling also advocates strict hand washing as a way to prevent the spread of RSV.

“Unfortunately, almost all children are infected by two years of age,” she says. So if your kids are excited to see their friends at school or daycare, they can share more than their funny stories and toys. They can also share what they’ve learned from you about good hand washing, sneezing into their elbows, and keeping their hands off their face to avoid RSV.