Is it RSV? Caring for your child's viral infection

It's common for cases of Respiratory Syncytial Virus to peak in winter. But this year, the U.S. is seeing an early surge of RSV cases in children. Though the cold-like virus is often mild in people of all ages, it can sometimes lead to complications and hospitalization, especially for babies and immunocompromised children.

As you navigate whether your family's sniffles are mild or serious, we're here to help. Read on to learn how to identify symptoms of RSV and know when to seek medical care for your kids' fall and winter bugs.

How does RSV spread?

RSV spreads through respiratory droplets, especially coughing and sneezing. A person infected with RSV can be contagious for up to eight days - even longer for those with weaker immune systems.

The virus circulates every year, and nearly everyone catches it at some point in their lifetime. In fact, the CDC says that almost all children will have had RSV by the time they're 2. Pandemic precautions like masking and social distancing over the past few years have protected young children from exposure. Now that many precautions are gone, a large group of children is more exposed, leading to this fall's surge in infections.

How do I know if it's RSV?

RSV can cause severe congestion and difficulty breathing. Parents may notice the muscles around a child's ribcage sucking in and their nostrils flaring as their body works harder to inhale. RSV tends to get worse around days three to five after the initial infection.

General symptoms of RSV include:

• Coughing

• Decreased appetite

• Fever

• Runny nose

• Sneezing

• Wheezing

Monitor your child's symptoms and stay in touch with their pediatrician, even if it seems like a simple cold at first.

How is RSV treated?

While there is no specific treatment for RSV, the CDC reports that researchers are working to develop vaccines and antivirals. Antibiotics are not used to treat any viral infections.

Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two. Over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be used. Hydration is key; even if your child has a low appetite when they aren't feeling well, you should help them stay hydrated with popsicles, smoothies and water.

Remove excess mucus using a saline rinse and nasal aspirator to suction your little one's nose. Running a cool mist humidifier in their room while they sleep can also help thin mucus and ease congestion.

Be sure to talk to your child's doctor about changes in their symptoms and discuss what remedies might be best for them.

When is hospitalization needed?

For the majority of RSV infections, hospitalization is not necessary. But if your child is having trouble breathing or is becoming dehydrated - urinating less or becoming lethargic - you should head to the emergency room. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia (a lung infection) in children younger than 1.

- Dr. John Conroy is with AdventHealth Medical Group Family Medicine in Hinsdale.