People infected with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days. Respiratory syncytial virus or RSV is associated with lung infection in infants. Babies between one and three months of age have the highest risk of contracting pneumonia and bronchiolitis owing to RSV infection.
According to health experts, this virus causes respiratory illness in almost all children less than two years of age. The risk of contracting RSV infection is usually higher in early spring, fall and winter, when the virus is most active. However, the exact duration of the RSV season might vary every year from region to region.
Symptoms of RSV in infants
- Trouble breathing
- Unusually upset or inactive
- Refuses to or bottle-feed
- Nasal congestion and discharge.
- A mild cough.
- Wheezing, which usually lasts about seven days
Causes of RSV infection
RSV infection is highly contagious for three to eight days. However, very young infants or children and adults with weakened immune system might spread the infection for up to four weeks. Just like common cold and flu, the respiratory infection occurs when a baby is exposed to the mucus infected with the respiratory syncytial virus.
When a person suffering from RSV infection sneezes or coughs, droplets of mucus containing the virus spread in the surrounding air. The virus might invade the lungs of a healthy person when he/she inhales air containing the virus. A baby could develop RSV infection when a person infected with RSV kisses the baby on the face. The virus might enter the body of a baby, if he/she touches a surface contaminated with the infected mucus and then touches his/her eyes, nose or mouth with the unclean hand.
RSV viruses survive on soft surfaces such as hands and tissue papers for a shorter period. However, on hard surfaces, such as tables, the virus can live for several hours. After entering the body through the nose or the mouth, the virus rapidly multiplies inside the lungs. The symptoms of the illness appear four to six days after an infant contracts the infection.
RSV in infants – risk factors
Although RSV infection is a common form of infection of the respiratory tract in infants, the risk and severity of the illness is greater among premature infants and babies born with low birth weight. Weakened immune system in these infants makes them susceptible to viral and bacterial infections. Often children contract the infection in daycares or schools.
They might pass on the infection to their younger siblings in home. Exposure to tobacco smoke weakens the immune system and harms the respiratory system of the child, increasing the risk of infections. A history of asthma or breathing problems increases the chance of developing RSV infection. Babies with congenital heart disease or chronic lung diseases are vulnerable to RSV.
In a recent study, researchers in the Netherlands have found a strong link between risk of developing RSV infection and vitamin D level at birth. Newborns with low serum vitamin D level, below 20ng/mL, have almost six fold higher risk of contracting RSV infection before their first birthday than newborns with serum vitamin level not less than 30ng/mL at birth. Vitamin D deficiency at birth is a major health hazard in infants born in temperate regions.
In the Netherlands, where the study was conducted, almost 54 per cent of healthy newborns have low plasma concentration of vitamin D. This sunshine vitamin, which the body manufactures naturally when the skin is exposed to the sun, is needed for the development of lungs and immune system in the fetus and infants. Vitamin D enhances the natural ability of the body to fight invading germs.
RSV in infants – treatment
There are no vaccines for preventing RSV infection. In healthy infants, the infection heals naturally within a few days. It might take up to two weeks to recover completely from the illness. Give the baby small amounts of fluid at frequent intervals. During the dry winter months, increase the moisture content in the room with a cool mist vaporizer. Remove sticky nasal fluids with a bulb syringe using saline drops Use a cool-mist vaporizer to keep the air moist and make breathing easier Give your little one fluids in small amounts throughout the day. Use non- aspirin fever acetaminophen. Check the label and follow all directions carefully. This would help your baby to breath. The dry winter air tends to dry the airways in the lungs, which might cause breathing problems in babies suffering from RSV infection.
Severe lower respiratory tract infection that causes breathing difficulties is treated with supplemental oxygen. To ease breathing, mucus clogging the airways might be suctioned. In the worst cases, breathing tubes might be inserted or the baby might be put on mechanical ventilation.
RSV in infants – prevention
RSV infections in infants could be prevented. Keeping the child away from a person suffering from coughs and colds could minimize the risk of contracting RSV infection. If a member in your household is suffering from RSV infection, Wash hands frequently with soap and water, especially before touching an infant. Hands should ideally be wet with water and plain or antimicrobial soap, and rubbed together for 15 to 30 seconds. Hands should be rinsed thoroughly and dried with a single-use towel.
Avoid smoking in the child’s home because this increases the risk of respiratory illness. Always wash your hands with soap and water before touching the infant. To stop the infection, properly wash the utensils after eating, and do not share the utensils and crockery with people suffering from cold and cough. To prevent vitamin D deficiency in newborns, which might aggravate the risk of developing RSV infection, pregnant women should include vitamin D rich food and supplements in their daily diet.