Respiratory Syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) Virus (RSV) is the most common germ to cause infection in our lungs and breathing passages. RSV causes the most serious problems in babies and young children and is usually the reason babies suffer from pneumonia and bronchiolitis (swelling of the small air passages in our lungs). By the time we reach the age of 2, almost all of us have been infected by RSV. This virus can be especially dangerous for preemies and children less than two years old with chronic heart, lung or immune problems. Every year, up to 125,000 children are hospitalized because of complications caused by RSV.
RSV spreads when we cough or sneeze and send microscopic virus droplets into the air. We get sick by inhaling these particles or by coming into contact with surfaces where the virus is living. When we touch, kiss or shake hands, we can also be spreading RSV germs. This nasty virus can live up to a half hour on our hands, several hours on used tissues and up to five hours on hard surfaces such as countertops and door knobs.
RSV can lie hidden in our bodies for four to six days before we realize we’ve been attacked. Pennsylvania sees most RSV cases from October through May. Those of us who have school-aged children or children in day care are at the highest risk. We are usually contagious for three to eight days but if we have weakened immune systems, we can continue to spread the virus for up to four weeks.
RSV usually starts out by giving us a runny nose and poor appetite. After one to three days, we will develop coughing, sneezing and a low-grade fever. Young children can develop ear infections, croup, bronchiolitis, pneumonia or even lung failure. Babies less than a year old can have trouble breathing or more severe symptoms including a cough that sounds like a seal’s bark (croup), flared nostrils, rapid breathing, shortness of breath and wheezing. A baby having difficulty breathing is an emergency and should be seen by a physician without delay! Doctors can perform rapid RSV tests by swabbing the inside of the nose.
As adults, we may have been infected with RSV multiple times and each time, our bodies build a stronger immunity against it. Children do not have these matured defenses to fight off such a strong germ, so it’s our responsibility to help protect them through these actions:
An important part of the mission against RSV is to remember that antibiotics will not affect a virus. Viruses are self-limiting, meaning that they must “run their course” before they go away. We can treat our symptoms with recommendations from our doctors, but we really just need to give our bodies one to two weeks to recover. Each small action we take can add up to big results in the case against RSV. For every one of us that helps prevent the spread of infection, dozens of our friends and family stay healthy. That’s the kind of defense strategy we need to keep RSV at bay.
If a child develops a serious condition as a result of RSV, further treatment may be required. The Complex Respiratory Program  at the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit  is designed for children from birth to age 21 with acute or chronic lung disease or ventilator needs and can be reached for more information at 610-807-4200.