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Published on June 25, 2019

A common cold or something more?


A common cold? That’s a diagnosis we understand, but what about Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)? It sounds frightening, even mysterious, but most of the time it is nothing more than a mild, cold-like illness.

“RSV aren’t three letters we need to panic about,” said Janelle Laudone, MD, chief of pediatrics at Cape Cod Hospital and a pediatric hospitalist. “It sounds so much worse than a cold, but usually it’s not.”

Most children who get the RSV virus get better on their own, she said.

“RSV is very common. Most children will have an RSV infection by the time they are 2 years old,” said Dr. Laudone.

RSV is so common, she said, that most doctors do not test children for the illness because, as with a cold, RSV typically resolves itself. There is usually no need to perform lab work to identify the specific virus.

RSV has cold-like symptoms: runny nose, cough, and low-grade fever, she said. There is no antivirus to treat the infection. Instead, after checking with your doctor, you can provide supportive care at home, which means having children get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids and take medicine to reduce fevers, Dr. Laudone said.

Sometimes RSV can move into the lungs and cause a lower respiratory tract infection such as bronchiolitis, which can cause wheezing and difficulty breathing. Children with bronchiolitis, high fevers or problems eating or drinking can require hospitalization, and that’s where Dr. Laudone steps in.

As a doctor working primarily in the hospital (hospitalist), she sees most pediatric RSV patients in the fall, winter and spring. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year in the United States about 57,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized due to an RSV infection.

“A small percentage of infants who get RSV may need to be hospitalized for supportive care,” Dr. Laudone said. “They may require oxygen if they are having difficulty breathing, or an IV to push fluids if they are having difficulty staying hydrated on their own.”

Children who are admitted to the hospital usually stay just three or four days, she said.

One way to help a child with an RSV or any respiratory problem is to refrain from smoking around them, said Dr. Laudone. Any time a child has a respiratory infection, it can be made worse by smoke exposure, she said.

“When kids are sick, it’s a good idea for caregivers who are thinking about quitting or cutting back to do so, because quitting smoking and vaping is beneficial for their health and the child’s health, as well,” she said.

How to Prevent Infections

“In addition to smoking cessation, I think these are great tips from the CDC to help prevent any infection, not just colds or RSV,” said Dr. Laudone. Those tips include:

  • Wash your hands often. Use soap and water for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Keep your hands off your face.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve when coughing or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces. Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as toys and doorknobs. When people infected with RSV touch surfaces and objects, they can leave behind germs. Also, when they cough or sneeze, droplets containing germs can land on surfaces and objects.
  • Stay home from work or school when you are sick.