Respiratory tract infections are very common and can be mild; however, they can sometimes cause more serious symptoms. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the virus most often responsible for these infections in children. It can also affect adults.
RSV is usually present from late fall to early spring. Experts estimate that by the age of two, all children will have contracted RSV at least once. Most children will have come into contact with the virus through other children, especially at daycare.
Symptoms of the respiratory syncytial virus
Symptoms of RSV infection are very similar to those of a cold, including nasal congestion and discharge, fever, coughing and sneezing. In infants, irritability, decreased appetite, difficulty breathing, and decreased activity.
Symptoms appear 2 to 8 days after exposure to RSV and usually persist for 7 to 10 days. Usually, in both children and adults, symptoms go away on their own. However, premature babies, people with chronic lung disease and those with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of developing complications such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
For example, RSV is transmitted from person to person by droplets that are shed by a person when they cough or sneeze. RSV can also survive for several hours on various surfaces, such as doorknobs, so it is possible to become infected by touching contaminated objects. A person infected with the virus will be contagious for as long as they have symptoms, which is usually 7 to 10 days, as mentioned above.
Note that it is possible to contract RSV several times. However, the symptoms and duration of the infection are less with subsequent infections.
Treatment of RSV
Treatment for RSV is aimed at relieving symptoms. Saline solutions are recommended to reduce nasal congestion. Acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory drugs can also be used to reduce fever. Consult your healthcare professional to determine which product to use and the appropriate dosage.
In addition to these interventions, there are a variety of measures that can be put in place to help your child:
- In addition to saline solutions, practice nasal hygiene with a nasal aspirator for babies
- If nasal congestion interferes with the child's feeding, opt for smaller amounts of food, but serve more frequently
- Position the child at a 30-degree angle to improve drainage of the nasal passages
- Cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under 6 years of age. If you have any questions, talk to your healthcare professional
Is there a vaccine for RSV?
To date, no vaccine is available for RSV. However, some vaccines are under development and will probably be available very soon. In addition, even if no specific vaccine for RSV is available, the general vaccination offered in Québec is recommended, as it protects against complications associated with RSV.
Medication is also available as an intramuscular injection that reduces the risk of hospitalization following RSV infection. However, this treatment is only recommended for children under two years of age who are at risk of developing certain complications, such as premature babies.
Prevention remains the best way to protect yourself from the harmful effects of the virus. In fact, several measures can be taken to avoid being exposed to RSV. Here are some examples:
- Frequent hand washing (ideally with soap and water, but hydroalcoholic gels may be a good alternative)
- Avoid contact with people who have the virus
- Disinfect counters regularly if a family member is affected
- Wear a mask in the presence of symptomatic persons
- Avoid exposure to primary and secondary smoke
- Practice regular nasal hygiene during the winter (e.g. with saline solutions)
- For children:
- Avoid going to crowded places with your child, such as a shopping mall
- Avoid sharing toys with other children
- When possible, breastfeeding transmits antibodies to the child and can protect against viral infections
These measures are especially important for people at risk of developing complications from the virus.
When to consult a healthcare provider
In adults, medical consultation is generally not required. However, in children, it is recommended to consult a healthcare professional if they have any of the following conditions:
- Less than 3 months of age and presence of fever
- More than 3 months of age and presence of fever with a degradation in overall health
- Difficulty drinking and sleeping due to coughing and congestion
- Wheezing and pulling (when the soft tissues of the chest are abnormally pulled into the chest during inspiration)
- Amorphous state with difficulty waking up
You know your child best as a parent, so talk to a healthcare professional if you are concerned about your child's condition.