Your Health

Protect your child from risks of RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus, 3D illustration which shows structure of virus of two types of surface spikes.
Photo of Dr. Joanne Embree DR JOANNE EMBREE
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Tuesday, November 15, 2016

It is as predictable as the first winter snowfall.

Every year around this time, there is a surge in the number of children with colds and assorted viruses. Most times, these illnesses can be treated at home with fluids and medications for fever or discomfort.

But there are some viruses floating around that require parents to be much more vigilant, especially if your child is under two years old.

One of these is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a nasty little bug that causes as many as 170 children to be hospitalized in Winnipeg every winter, usually between November and February.

Most children will have been infected with RSV at least once by the time they are two years old. Usually, they will experience the symptoms of a cold: a runny nose, fussiness, cough, fever and a decrease in appetite and energy and will start to get better after a few days.

But RSV can be tougher on infants, especially when it evolves into a type of chest infection called bronchiolitis. Infants who develop bronchiolitis - an infection of the lung that results in an asthma-like illness with wheezing - may need to be hospitalized for oxygen and nutritional support.

As a result, it is important for parents to be aware of this virus and to take steps to prevent their infants from becoming infected by it. The best way to do this is to lower the number of viruses with which they come into contact.

Generally speaking, RSV is transmitted from person to person when someone close by coughs or sneezes without covering his or her mouth and nose. The virus also survives well on surfaces such as door knobs and counters for several hours. So, the most common way for you to acquire RSV is by touching these contaminated surfaces with your hands and then touching your face.

To help contain the spread of this virus, it is important for parents and other family members to wash their hands frequently with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Ask visitors to delay their trip to your home if they have a head cold. Sick family members should take care around a baby.

Parents should do their best to avoid taking their infants to crowded areas such as shopping malls, grocery stores or large family gatherings during the RSV season. Avoid smoking in the house, as infants in a house where one or more people smoke are more likely to develop bronchiolitis when infected with RSV.

If your child appears to have a cold, take measures to treat the symptoms at home. Make your child comfortable and provide plenty of fluids, which can be tricky because many babies won't feel like drinking. Offer fluids in small amounts frequently. Use a nasal aspirator on children too young to blow their own nose, removing sticky nasal fluids.

Treat fever using a non-Aspirin fever medicine, such as acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used in children with viral infections as such use has been associated with Reye syndrome, a life-threatening illness. Do not use over-the-counter cold medications for children under the age of six.

It is important to be on the lookout for signs your child's cold may have evolved into a severe form of RSV or bronchiolitis. If your child is breathing faster than normal, is having difficulty breathing or taking long pauses between breaths, is blue around the lips, is not responding to you normally or cannot feed, call Health Links (204-788-8200 or toll-free 1-888-315-9257), or take your child to your health-care provider or the nearest emergency department to be assessed (check

RSV cannot be treated with antibiotics because it is a virus. However, very premature high-risk infants are enrolled in the RSV Prevention Program, run through Children's Hospital, which automatically arranges for them to receive Palivizumab, a medication that lowers their risk of becoming ill with bronchiolitis.

For more information related to RSV and other common illnesses affecting children, consult the Canadian Pediatric Society Website -

Dr. Joanne Embree is a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases who is a consultant in the RSV prevention program at the Children's Hospital. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Nov. 29, 2013.

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