House Calls: Common virus can afflict kids in cold months

By Aleen Huston November 07, 2011 05:58 pm

House Calls runs every two weeks. Today’s column is written by Aleen Huston, respiratory care practitioner and certified respiratory therapist at Sutter Coast Hospital.

During the cold-weather months, hospital facilities are on high alert, especially Sutter Coast Hospital, for Respiratory Syncytial Virus.

RSV is a childhood infection as common as influenza. It’s responsible for one of every 13 visits to a pediatrician and one of every 38 emergency room trips. It infects most children sooner or later (usually before the age of 2). It often starts out with cold symptoms. For many babies and young children, the virus is no more troublesome than a cold. RSV infections usually occur during the winter months, with its peak in January and February in the Del Norte County.




Just like a cold, RSV can be spread when someone with the infection sneezes or coughs. The droplet stays in the air and if someone inhales the particles or the particles contact their nose, mouth, or eye, they can become infected.

The virus can survive on hard surfaces such as tables and crib rails for many hours. It can live on soft surfaces such as tissues and hands for shorter amounts of time.

RSV usually begins four to six days after exposure with a runny nose and decrease in appetite. Coughing, sneezing, and fever typically develop one to three days later. In some cases, wheezing may also occur.

In very young infants, irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties may be the only symptoms of infection. Most otherwise-healthy infants infected with RSV do not require hospitalization. In most cases, including among those who need to be hospitalized, full recovery from illness occurs in about one to two weeks.

Call your health care provider if breathing difficulties or other symptoms of this disorder appear. Any breathing difficulties in an infant are an emergency. Seek medical attention right away.

The most important way to help stop infection from spreading is frequent hand washing and wiping of hard surfaces with soap and water or disinfectant. Also, persons with RSV illness should not share cups or eating utensils with others.

People with cold-like symptoms should not interact with high-risk children. If this is not possible, people should cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and then wash their hands before providing any care. They should also refrain from kissing high-risk children while they have cold-like symptoms.

When possible, limiting the time that high-risk children spend in child-care centers or other potentially contagious settings may help prevent infection and spread of the virus during the RSV season.

Is there a treatment for RSV? For mild RSV cases, some require no specific treatment from doctors. Antibiotics aren’t used because RSV is a virus and antibiotics are only effective against bacteria. Medication may sometimes be given to help open airways.

For infants, however, RSV can be more serious and may require hospitalization so that the baby can be watched closely, receive fluids and be treated for breathing problems.

At home, kids with RSV should be kept as comfortable as possible, provided plenty of fluids and allowed time to recover. To help your child breathe easier, using a cool-mist vaporizer during the winter months keeps the air moist. Avoid using hot water and steam vaporizers, which can be hazardous and can cause scalding. Remember to clean out the vaporizer daily with bleach to discourage mold.

If your child has a fever, use nonaspirin fever medicines such as acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used in children with viral illnesses. The reason to avoid aspirin is because it can increase your children’s chances of developing Reye’s syndrome if they take them while they also have a viral infection.

For more information, visit the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website at

Email suggestions for future House Calls columns to Beth Liles at Sutter Coast Hospital, This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it