Like the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) often begins with symptoms such as cough, fever and runny or stuffy nose. And, like the flu, it’s highly contagious. In fact, nearly all children will have been infected by RSV by the time they turn 2, says Deborah Mulligan, MD. For most of them, the infection is no more troublesome than the common cold.
But for some, RSV can become life-threatening, leading to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, an infection of the airways that has been linked to asthma later in life. Newborns are among those most at risk for dangerous complication.
Unlike the flu, however, there is no vaccine for RSV and no treatment. For babies at extremely high risk—those who were born prematurely or with heart disease—doctors might recommend injections of antibodies that can help prevent infection during peak RSV season. The injections are very expensive, though, and only administered in special cases.
According to Carol J. Baker, MD, researchers are working to develop a vaccine for RSV. In the meantime, she and other doctors advise parents to practice healthy habits like frequent hand-washing and to seek medical attention if baby develops any of these serious symptoms: high fever, thick nasal discharge, a cough with yellow, green or gray mucus, difficulty breathing or signs of dehydration.