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Know the Signs of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and Protect your Child

Each winter parents and healthcare staff are battling the rising numbers of young babies and children with Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV.

So here is a breakdown of the facts about RSV:

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV is a common respiratory virus that typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms. The majority of people who catch RSV will recover within a week or two but for medically vulnerable, older adults and young babies, it can be a serious illness. RSV can cause bronchiolitis which is the inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia which is an infection of the lungs.

Who is most at risk?

Premature, newborn and babies under 12 months, and older adults, particularly those with chronic health conditions who would be classes as medically vulnerable. All other children and adults can also catch RSV but it is unlikely to advance to serious illness.

How do we avoid RSV?

For newborn or babies under 12 months, check with visitors to ensure they are well with no symptoms of cold or cough. Ensure all visitors wash their hands before holding your baby. It is perfectly acceptable to ask visitors to wear a mask and sanitise their hands around your baby or young child.

“Many children might have a runny nose or a slight cough in winter season and they should not be stopped from attending if well with one mild symptom. However, if a child is feeling unwell with more significant symptoms, or combination of symptoms (cough, runny nose and mild fever) then they should be at home until the fever and their symptoms have gone. Children may have a persistent cough after infection for a few weeks; once the fever and any other symptoms have finished, they should not be excluded because of this persistent cough alone”. (National Child Health Public Health Programme, Health Service Executive, 2022).

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Signs and symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus infection most commonly appear about four to six days after exposure to the virus. In adults and older children, RSV usually causes mild cold-like signs and symptoms. These may include:
  • Congested or runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache

In Severe Cases

RSV infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis — inflammation of the small airway passages entering the lungs. Signs and symptoms may include:
  • Fever
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing — a high-pitched noise that's usually heard on breathing out (exhaling)
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing — the person may prefer to sit up rather than lie down
  • Bluish colour of the skin due to lack of oxygen (cyanosis)
Infants are most severely affected by RSV. Signs and symptoms of severe RSV infection in infants include:
  • Short, shallow and rapid breathing
  • Struggling to breathe — chest muscles and skin pull inward with each breath
  • Cough
  • Poor feeding
  • Unusual tiredness (lethargy)
  • Irritability

When to get medical help

Most children and adults recover in one to two weeks, although some might have repeated wheezing. Severe or life-threatening infection requiring a hospital stay may occur in premature infants or in anyone who has chronic heart or lung problems. If your child or family member has any severe symptoms seek medical attention immediately.