We're entering the holiday season, which is also, unfortunately, the season of viruses.
You may be hearing more about a certain virus, RSV, thanks in part to celebrity mama Vanessa Lachey, who has been speaking out about how the virus took her by surprise when it infected her son, Phoenix, who was born prematurely. Lachey didn't know that his prematurity put Phoenix at an increased risk for the illness.
"So when he was hospitalized for six days for severe RSV disease, I was shocked," she recently wrote on Instagram (in a post sponsored by AstraZeneca). "I wish I had known more about RSV before this traumatic experience."
When Lachey's son got sick during a family vacation, she wasn't informed about RSV, so she didn't expect it. "I actually took Phoenix to the doctor multiple times, and they just brushed it off as a flu-like virus," Lachey told Health. "I knew when his coughing continued, there was wheezing, his temperature was over 100 for a long period of time, and he had bluish nails and lips that something was wrong."
Here are 11 things parents need to know about RSV:
1. RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus
In healthy adults and older kids it usually presents as the common cold. Symptoms include a runny nose, dry cough, low-grade fever, sore throat and mild headache.
Most healthy people are over it in about two weeks, but it can have serious health implications for some infants, especially those who are premature or have other health conditions.
2. We're in the middle of RSV season
The virus is common in late fall through spring. According to the CDC, in recent years RSV season has started in mid-September to mid-November, with the season peaking in late December to mid-February, and tapering off in the spring (except in Florida, which has an earlier RSV season onset and longer duration than most states).
3. It's super common
According to the Mayo Clinic, most kids will have been infected with RSV by age two. That doesn't mean it's not serious though. It can just be like a cold, but the CDC notes RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger under 12 months old, and it results in 2.1 million outpatient visits in kids under five every year.
4. Some babies require hospitalization
More than 57,000 kids under five require hospitalization due to RSV each year. Bronchiolitis and pneumonia can of course put a child in the hospital, but RSV doesn't have to cause either of those for an infant to require round the clock medical treatment. Sometimes a severe RSV infection without those complications means a baby will require hospitalization so that their breathing can be monitored and IV fluids can be administered.
5. A baby's chest muscles and skin pulling inward is a sign of severe RSV
If you notice your baby's skin and chest are pulling in with every breath they take you should seek medical attention right away. Short, shallow or rapid breathing, coughing, lethargy and not eating as they usually do are also red flags for parents during RSV season.
6. There is no medication for RSV
If your baby is diagnosed with RSV there is unfortunately no medication that can immediately cure them of the infection. Time is the treatment in most cases.
In-hospital treatment can see children receive Intravenous (IV) fluids, humidified oxygen or mechanical ventilation, but treatment at home is often supportive care, so basically keeping them comfortable and full of fluids until the virus is gone.
7. There is no vaccine
Scientists are working toward developing a vaccine for RSV, but right now, no vaccine for the illness is licensed anywhere in the world.
8. There is a preventative medication for those at the highest risk
Babies who were born prematurely and those who are immunocompromised or have heart defects or other health conditions are sometimes given a series of shots of a drug called palivizumab (also known as synagis) during RSV season. The drug is expensive, and only recommended for when babies meet certain high-risk criteria.
9. RSV is unfortunately pretty contagious
RSV is really contagious, and because it feels like a common cold in healthy adults, a lot of people don't self-isolate when they have it. A child with RSV might be contagious for up to four weeks, even after they stop showing symptoms.
If you have multiple children and one has been sick, it's a good idea to clean shared toys and have them sleep in separate rooms if possible.
10. Prevention is key
If more people were able to stay home when they are sick, RSV transmission could be lowered. If you're sick and you can take time off, do it. It will help you recover faster and prevent the possible spread of RSV to other families.
11. Protecting your family isn't bad manners
People love to hug and kiss babies, but when somebody is sick, it's okay to say "no thanks" to affection for your little one.
It can be tricky to navigate in public when you're trying to protect your baby and everyone in line at the grocery store wants to squish their cheeks, so some parents are putting it in writing—adding little signs to their carts, carseats, onesies and strollers that let strangers know it's not okay to touch the little one.
Bottom line: RSV can be serious, and as we head into the holidays it's important to remember that it's okay to say no to an invitation if you're not feeling well, or to reschedule if a prospective guest tells you they've got a little cold. Sometimes, little colds can turn into big problems for little babies, but if we all work together we can make them safer during RSV season.