Health Note: ‘Tis the Season … For RSV

RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) will send up to 125,000 American kids to the hospital this time of year.

By Christina Elston

Lots of people call this "cold and flu season." But if you have a new baby or toddler in the house, there’s something else to watch out for.

RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) sends up to 125,000 American kids to the hospital this time of year, according to pediatric infectious disease expert Deborah Lehman, M.D. Most of those children are under 6 months old.

“We usually see our first cases at the beginning of November,” says Lehman. The number increases through the holidays, peaks around the beginning of February, and falls off by April or May.

While the virus can act just like the common cold in adults and older kids, in younger children it can descend into the lower respiratory system, causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung), both of which can be life threatening.

There is no vaccine against RSV, but Lehman suggests a few things you can do to help protect your family:

Protect your preemie. If your baby was born prematurely, ask your doctor about preventive antibody shots, which are given monthly to boost immunity.

Get a flu shot. The influenza vaccine reduces respiratory infections of other types, keeping the family healthier.

Screen your visitors. If your baby is under 3 months old, don’t allow any visitors with respiratory symptoms (runny nose, cough, congestion) in the house.

Wash up. RSV is spread through direct contact with “secretions” (mucous), so think “hand washing, hand washing, hand washing.” Lehman also recommends frequent cleaning of toys and other surfaces. “Not crazy hygiene, but good hygiene,” she says.

Change clothes. If you have a toddler or preschooler in the house, Lehman advises having them change clothes and wash up as soon as they come home, to combat “the little Petri dish they face at preschool.”

Police your sniffles. If you or one of your older kids has what looks like a cold, it could be RSV and you could spread it to your infant. “The truth is, when adults have this, we don’t know about it,” Lehman says. So take extra precautions when someone’s ill.

Even if your child does come down with RSV, he’ll most likely be fine. But if he has severe coughing or wheezing, signs of high fever, difficulty breathing, lethargy or lack of appetite, check with your doctor.