Healthy Living

Is it a Cold or RSV?

Nov 3 2022

It’s not uncommon to catch a cold. However, if you’re the parent of a baby, it’s important to understand cold symptoms are sometimes caused by a more serious health condition.

Respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that usually causes cold-like symptoms. While most adults recover in a week or two, RSV can be serious – even life-threatening – for infants.

RSV vs. Common Cold

Just like the cold or flu, RSV spreads through the air, like after a cough or sneeze, as well as through direct contact, such as touching. RSV is usually contagious for three to eight days.

For most babies and young children, RSV causes nothing more than a cold. However, this infection most commonly causes bronchiolitis, or inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year old.

Many people mistake the symptoms of RSV for symptoms of the common cold, which include coughing, sneezing and a fever. It is very common for young children to develop these kinds of symptoms, especially if they are in daycare or school. However, babies born prematurely, children younger than 2 who were born with heart or lung disease and children younger than 10 weeks old are at the highest risk for developing RSV.

Some common symptoms that may indicate your child has RSV are:

  • They have a high-pitched whistling or wheezing noise when they breathe
  • They are unusually upset or inactive
  • They have a cough with yellow, green or gray mucus
  • They are having trouble breathing or there are pauses in their breaths
  • They refuse to breastfeed or bottle-feed
  • They have signs of dehydration, including a lack of tears when crying, little or no urine in their diaper for six hours and cool, dry skin

If your baby is very tired, breathes rapidly or has a blue tint to their lips or fingernails, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.

Avoiding RSV

There are many easy steps you can take to avoid RSV and prevent it from spreading:

  • Avoid kissing your or other babies if you have cold symptoms or are recovering from a cold
  • If possible, keep your baby away from anyone with cold symptoms and avoid crowds
  • Regularly clean and disinfect hard surfaces
  • Don’t let anyone smoke around your baby, and avoid areas where there is smoking
  • Ask people to wash their hands before they touch or hold your baby
  • Limit the time high-risk babies and young children are in daycare
  • Wash your hands often, especially after contact with someone who has cold symptoms

Diagnosing and treating RSV

It can be stressful when your baby isn’t feeling well. It’s very important to contact his or her pediatrician if you notice any symptoms or they aren’t acting quite right.

The doctor will likely do a physical exam and listen to their lungs. The doctor might also do some tests, such as chest X-rays or lab work, to rule out other problems.

In most cases, doctors don’t usually treat RSV as medication will not treat the virus itself. So, in most cases, treating the infection involves treating the symptoms at home.

Learn about the health care services we offer at Mercy Health. 

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