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What is RSV? And How Can I Protect My Children?

Q&A With Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist Priya Soni, MD Gives Parents the Information They Need

Respiratory syncytial virus, commonly called RSV, usually affects very young children in the winter months. But this year, physicians are treating an unusual, out-of-season surge both in California and across the country.

"It is very strange to see this virus in the warmer months," said pediatric infectious disease specialist Priya Soni, MD, "but many of us believe because of last year's pandemic restrictions, infants and children were not as exposed to the virus as they normally would be. And as they are starting to mingle more now, they are more susceptible."

The Cedars-Sinai Newsroom spoke with Soni about what symptoms parents should look out for and the latest RSV treatments.

Newsroom: What is RSV and how common is it?

Soni: RSV is a common childhood respiratory virus that mostly afflicts young children, often under the age of 5. The virus can give children a cough and a fever and sometimes wheezing. These symptoms usually crop up in stages. Some of the youngest afflicted with RSV can just show poor feeding, irritability and breathing difficulties. While it is most often treated at home, severe cases can land children in the hospital. In the United States, RSV is responsible for 58,000 hospitalizations a year.

Newsroom: Can RSV be confused with COVID-19, and how can parents differentiate?

Soni: RSV manifests similarly to COVID-19, so while parents might think of COVID-19 first, it is important for them to know that RSV is also circulating now. In addition to the common fever and cough symptoms, there are some differentiating symptoms. For example, we know that COVID-19 often presents with unique symptoms, such as loss of taste and smell, fatigue and muscle aches. This is not so common with RSV. There is a reliable test for RSV, an antigen-based test as well as a PCR test. When parents bring their sick child to the pediatrician for care, they should consider an RSV and a COVID-19 test. Unfortunately, although it's rare, co-infection is a possibility.

Newsroom: How is RSV treated?

Soni: The treatment is supportive measures. That includes managing fever hydrated, and in small babies, suctioning of the nasal secretions so they can breathe better is very important. We also often encourage the use of a humidifier. In severe cases, some children and infants do require hospitalization for oxygen support and on rare occasion, have to be placed on ventilators. Usually these are infants that are born prematurely or with chronic lung disease or other preexisting conditions, like congenital cardiac defects. There is a monoclonal antibody medication available that is used as a protection for these vulnerable patients. I encourage parents to discuss use of this drug if they have an infant that meet criteria, now that we have seen a clear uptick in RSV cases.

Newsroom: Are there any preventive measures?

Soni: The main thing parents can do is continue to be vigilant about hygiene for themselves and their children. That means encouraging hand-washing, especially after interacting with other children, and mask-wearing, when possible, particularly in indoor settings. As with all respiratory infections, it is always a good idea to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper shirtsleeve instead of your hands.

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: What's the Difference Between a Cold, the Flu and COVID-19?