This Virus Mimics a Cold, But Can Be Much More Dangerous

Respiratory synctial virus can be a severe illness for the very young and the very old
Close up of a parent holding an infant's hand

With its symptoms of cough, runny nose, and fever, respiratory synctial virus (RSV) may seem much like the common cold. And most of the time, this virus only causes these kind of minor, if annoying, symptoms. However, for some babies, infection with the RSV virus can be much more dangerous than the common cold.

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Certain infants may have difficulty fighting an RSV infection once they become infected. These children include:

  • Those who are younger than about 6 months
  • Those who were born preterm
  • Infants with underdeveloped lungs
  • Children with heart disease or lung disease

For these children, RSV can lead to serious problems such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, an infection of the small breathing tubes of the lungs. These two conditions are serious and can become life-threatening.

Spread by touch

RSV is the most common viruses that cause respiratory tract infections in young children, says pediatric pulmonologist Giovanni Piedimonte, MD.

Every child likely will have been infected with RSV by age 2, with about 50 percent to 60 percent of children infected in their first year of life. Usually a small number of these children — around 1 percent— will be sick enough to require hospitalization.

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The virus is highly contagious and spreads by touch. In most parts of the country, RSV starts to peak in the fall and winter.

“Most infections occur because somebody with the virus has been touching their nose and then touches somebody else,” Dr. Piedimonte says. “The second person touches their own nose or eyes and then becomes infected.”

You also can pick up RSV from surfaces, Dr. Piedimonte says. The virus can stay alive on a surface for several hours.

This is why it’s so important to remember to wash your hands, especially during the fall and winter months.

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Who is at risk?

RSV can be dangerous for the very young and the very old, Dr. Piedimonte says.

“If RSV infects a young baby, an older adult or somebody with predisposing chronic diseases, it may land you in a hospital and is going to be much more severe than typical rhino viral infections, such as the common cold,” Dr. Piedimonte says.

Parents of infants who were born prematurely or children with an underlying heart or respiratory problem should watch for signs of distressed and noisy breathing, a dry cough or decrease in appetite or activity level, as this may signal a more serious illness.

Parents with babies younger than six months should avoid crowded areas such as shopping malls to lessen the chance of contracting RSV or any other contagious virus, Dr. Piedimonte says.

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