african american baby girl being health checkup with stethoscope

Just as the world began to relax restrictions following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a collection of other viral illnesses began to surface in the news. One of those diseases, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), drew attention as a serious illness in young children. Understanding more about this disease can help you be prepared to enter cold and flu season.

What is RSV?

RSV is a common viral illness that has caused cold symptoms in children for many years but can lead to hospitalizations for some children.

“Every winter during our viral season we have a number of children impacted by RSV that end up needing intensive care services,” said Melanie Kitagawa, MD, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Texas Children’s Hospital.  These ICU patients tend to be younger children, and children with underlying lung disease such as asthma.

“That has to do with how the virus works. RSV produces a lot of secretions and mucus and those are the kids who have tinier airways who, when they have those secretions, have to work harder to breathe,” said Dr. Kitagawa.

Most children who get RSV, however, will have symptoms similar to any other cold: runny nose, cough and congestion. The testing to diagnose RSV is done at a clinic or hospital.

Why is RSV in the news this year?

While RSV over the past two years has caused the same symptoms that have been seen in other years, there has been one unusual difference.

            “What’s been different about RSV for us currently is that over the past two years we’ve actually had summer episodes of RSV, which is incredibly unusual,” said Dr. Kitagawa.

            According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for decades RSV cases in the United States started to show up in the fall, peaked in the winter, and were no longer present by late spring. This past year, RSV cases started increasing again in late spring and peaked in July. Now that fall is here, cases of RSV are creeping up again, meaning that there will be two RSV seasons in one year.

How is RSV treated?

While specialized medications are available for other viruses, such as influenza, there are no targeted therapies for RSV. The treatments are targeted at supporting your child through their symptoms while they are sick.

            “It’s making sure we’re taking care of the secretions that the kids have. If they need oxygen or help breathing, we’re helping take care of that. It’s making sure that they are getting the nutrition that they need and staying hydrated. In all the basics of good care for your sick kid, we just take the next step here when they come into the hospital,” said Dr. Kitagawa.

            If a child has a cold that is more severe than usual, especially if it is causing your child to have any trouble breathing or causing them to not eat and drink well, it is worthwhile to see your pediatrician. Pediatricians can help monitor symptoms, test for more serious illness and remind parents to keep the child hydrated and well rested. Pediatricians can also be a resource if symptoms become more severe. Difficulty breathing, decreased urine output and lethargy can all be signs that a child needs care in an emergency center or hospital.

Can RSV be prevented?

Common practices such as frequent hand washing and keeping distance from people who are obviously sick are the best ways to prevent RSV. Vaccination for RSV does not exist yet, but Dr. Kitagawa was quick to point out other important vaccines for children.

            “I don’t have a preventative vaccine for RSV but what we do have are flu and COVID vaccines. Getting our kids vaccinated for Flu and COVID is important so that those viruses don’t impact the children as well is incredibly important.”

            If you are concerned that your child is at greater risk for complications from RSV due to an underlying lung or immune condition, your pediatrician can help you navigate the risks and manage any symptoms that are concerning for more severe illness.

To schedule your child’s COVID-19 vaccine or flu vaccine visit