What is RSV?

  • Posted by Dr. Jay Gordon

Q. What is RSV and why is everyone worried about it?

A. Respiratory Syncytial Virus is a common cause of lower respiratory illness in babies and is particularly dangerous to preemies. It’s a winter virus and there are preventative measures for high risk preemies and treatments for babies who have severe pneumonia or bronchial infections. In adults or older kids, RSV usually just causes a bad cold with lots of mucus. In babies, the bronchial inflammation and copious amounts of mucus can cause partial obstruction of the airways. Wheezing and coughing result and the coughing may be persistent and very alarming both to the babies and to their parents.

Smaller babies and children with asthma may have so much trouble breathing that they become short of oxygen and require hospitalization. Most NICU follow up programs offer RSV preventative medication (an immune globulin injection given a few times throughout the winter) and if your baby fits into this category, please ask your doctor about this drug.

The drug rep was in my office just today to tell me that the company has started a brand new program to get insurance reimbursement for “Synagis”, the anti-RSV shots which are given monthly from November through March to high risk babies. This medication costs thousands of dollars and pediatricians have therefore been reluctant to even mention it. The sales rep says that insurance covers the shots completely. Check with your doc.

Even though I rarely have to put babies into the hospital even in the worst winters, breastfeeding babies do a lot better than non-breastfed infants. I seem to have to hospitalize at least one baby under six months of age every winter with RSV. It’s a nasty illness with up to a one week incubation period after exposure. Kids with RSV are contagious for at least 4-5 days and maybe longer in the case of babies coughing long and hard. I have learned to respect this nasty little virus and to respond fairly quickly when a baby looks like he/she has it in the first year of life. Still, most babies with RSV do not need hospitalization.