It’s been a virus other than COVID making headlines lately – respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. It is not a new virus, but in fact a very common, very contagious virus that infects the respiratory tract. It can cause outbreaks such as what we are seeing in New Zealand and in other countries around the world. This winter RSV has rapidly spread around New Zealand and it is thought that there is so much around this year because there wasn’t any last winter due to lockdown. The children who would normally have caught RSV didn’t catch the usual winter bugs and so this year there is a bigger pool of children who are susceptible.
RSV gets its name from ‘syncytia’ which are the large cells that form after infected cells fuse together. It is more common in the colder months of winter and spring and in New Zealand is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract infections for kids aged under two. Most children will have had an RSV infection by the time they are two years old. People don’t tend to develop complete immunity against the virus so can be reinfected again over their lifetime. The people most at risk from this virus are premature babies, children with other medical conditions or compromised immune systems and older adults, especially those with heart or lung diseases.
The symptoms of RSV are very similar to the common cold such as runny nose, cough, sneeze, and mild fever. It is usually a mild illness but can be very severe in babies (especially premature babies) and young children and they can get very sick quite quickly. It can be hard to tell what is wrong with a young baby but they may be irritable and not as active as usual. If they are wheezing, breathless or finding it hard to breathe it will make it difficult for them to feed so decreased appetite is another sign. Shortness of breath and rapid breathing in young babies can be a sign of pneumonia or bronchiolitis which can result from an RSV infection and requires immediate medical treatment.
People infected with RSV spread the virus when they cough, sneeze or talk. The virus can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables, toys and cot rails so good hygiene practices are important to prevent the spread. Stay at home from work, school or daycare if you are sick, stay away from babies and toddlers if you are unwell, and keep up the good handwashing routine we are all so familiar with. Sneeze into your elbow or tissue, don’t share food, cups or cutlery and wash any shared toys.
The treatment for RSV is for the symptoms and the same as for any cold if the disease is mild. There is no vaccine against this virus and antibiotics won’t work as they are only effective for bacterial infections. For most people, they will recover in about 10 days on their own. Rest, keep drinking lots of fluids to stay hydrated and treat any mild fever or pain if needed with paracetamol. Young infants and children who are admitted to hospital are usually given oxygen to help with their breathing and sometimes are given a feeding tube as well to help with feeding.
It is very important that you seek medical help immediately if your young child or baby is:
- Breathing fast, noisily or looks like they are using a lot of effort to breathe
- Has not had a wet nappy for over six hours
- taking less than half their normal feeds
- turning blue around the lips or fingertips.