Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus (aka RSV) is a respiratory virus that is one of the most frequent causes of the common cold. Any one of any age can catch RSV, in fact almost all children will have had it by the time they turn two. 

While RSV is generally mild for most children it is the most common cause of respiratory and breathing problems in kids and can cause more severe symptoms for young babies and other high risk groups.

Unfortunately over the last few years social and mainstream media have created A LOT of fear for us parents around RSV. At Cradle & Kin we believe that knowledge is power, and that feeling educated on a subject can help put you at ease, particularly when it comes to childhood illness. So pop on your specs and pour yourself a cup of tea (or a wine) it’s time to get stuck into all things RSV, free of all fear mongering-we promise.

How do kids catch RSV? 

RSV is a highly contagious virus. It is passed to others via droplets from coughing and sneezing or by sharing cups/water bottles or other objects that have been in contact with an infected persons eyes, mouth or nose. Symptoms of RSV usually appear around 5 days after exposure to the virus.

Adults and children can be contagious 1-2 days before they display symptoms and remain contagious for 3- 8 days after symptoms begin. 

In some cases people with a weakened immune system may be contagious for up to 4 weeks after symptoms have resolved.

How will I know if my child has RSV?

In mild cases it’s not necessarily important to know which virus is making your child sick, however if your child is unwell a doctor can do a swab test to confirm if your child has RSV.

What are the signs and symptoms of RSV?

Signs and symptoms of RSV will generally last anywhere from 8-15 days. In mild cases (aka most cases) you may see typical cold like symptoms such as:

  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Coughing
  • General lethargy
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite 

However in more severe cases, RSV can cause pneumonia (an infection of the lungs) and bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways). If your child’s RSV has led to pneumonia or bronchiolitis you will likely see one or more signs of respiratory distress such as:

  • Wheezing or other noisy breathing
  • Fast breathing
  • Sucking in around the neck and chest area known as recessions
  • Flaring of nostrils when breathing 
  • Head bobbing 

If your child displays any signs of respiratory distress when sick you should call for an ambulance or get them to ED immediately.

High risk groups

Some children have a higher risk of becoming more unwell with RSV (generally ending up with pneumonia or bronchiolitis) and in some cases may require oxygen, fluid replacement or other support in hospital. 

If your child is in a high risk group it doesn’t mean they will definitely become more unwell with RSV, however it is good to have this knowledge so you can be prepared and monitor them closely for worsening of symptoms when sick. High risk groups include:

  • Babies born prematurely 
  • Babies under 12 months and more commonly under 6 months- this is why it is so important that you don’t kiss a baby, in some cases adults will have no symptoms with RSV but can easily pass it on to vulnerable babies 
  • Children under 2 with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease
  • Immunocompromised children
  • Children with neuromuscular disorders 

Tip- If your child is asthmatic, RSV can worsen symptoms of asthma. Monitor closely, follow your child’s asthma action plan and do not hesitate to seek medical help early if needed.

If my child has RSV how can I reduce the chance of others becoming sick?

RSV can live on surfaces for hours or on unwashed hands for 30-60, so the best thing you can do is practice good hygiene. Here are some things you can do to reduce giving RSV to others:

  • Parents and children should wash their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, if unavailable you can use an alcohol based hand sanitiser
  • Teach children to cough and sneeze into their elbows
  • Avoid close contact with others such as kissing, shaking hands, sharing cups, water bottles and cutlery etc
  • Regularly clean household surfaces including door handles, toys and mobile phones.
  • Keep children at home until symptoms are completely resolved.

Is there a vaccination that helps prevent RSV?

There sure is! and for those of you in Western Australia it’s free for eligible children born on or before October 1st 2022.

If you live in W.A you can read more about the RSV vaccine here.

If you live outside of W.A a short google search should give you the information on RSV immunisations in your state.

What care can I provide at home if my child has mild RSV?

1). Focus on keeping kids comfortable-  consider pain relief if needed, consider using a nasal aspirator and saline spray/drops to clear a snotty nose, encourage rest, dress your child in light layers of clothing adding more if cold and removing layers if hot and as always provide lots of support, love and cuddles.

2). Ensure your child is well hydrated by encouraging regular fluid intake and serving foods with a high water content such as yogurt, jelly, watermelon, soup and even icy poles if age appropriate. 

3). Monitor your child for worsening symptoms and signs they may need medical attention.  

Take your child to see the GP if:

  • They are refusing to drink fluids, or can not drink due to congestion
  • Signs of mild dehydration you can read all about those here 
  • Fever for 48 hours or more
  • They have a cough that seems to be getting worse or they are coughing up mucus 
  • You are concerned for any reason 

If your child has one or more of the following signs or symptoms you should call an ambulance or take them to ED urgently:

  • Your child is showing any signs of respiratory distress such as wheezing or other noisy breathing, breathing that looks hard or fast, sucking in around the neck and chest area known as recessions, flaring of nostrils or head bobbing- we teach you how to identify all of these symptoms in our courses
  • Floppy or drowsy and hard to wake/keep awake
  • Temperature of 38 or over in a baby under the age of 3 months of age
  • Skin is pale, blotchy or blue 
  • Signs of severe dehydration- you can read about those here
  • Your instinct tells you something is seriously wrong

So to wrap things up, while RSV can cause serious respiratory issues in children, particularly in high risk groups, the majority of cases of RSV are actually mild and can be managed at home (phewwww).

Along with vaccination, practicing good hygiene and staying home when sick is crucial to reducing the spread of RSV. 

If you want to learn more about managing general illness in children and how to identify respiratory distress in kids, head to our course page to choose the right course for you!

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