What parents need to know about this respiratory ailment

Q: My daughter has been diagnosed with RSV, and I'm worried it's getting more serious. What are the signs and symptoms of RSV, and when should I seek medical attention if it worsens?

A: Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than age 1. Almost all babies get RSV—most of them before they are 2 years old—and knowing the signs and symptoms can help catch it early and start the proper course of treatment for your child.

For healthy children, RSV is similar to getting a cold: symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and fever. When a child is exposed to RSV, the virus infects cells in the upper and lower respiratory tracts, resulting in a surplus of mucus. This excess mucus clogs the nose and airways, making it difficult to breathe.

Antibiotics do not kill the virus. Treatment consists of symptom relief and supportive care. Parents can use a cool-mist humidifier to make breathing easier and reduce coughing, give plenty of liquids and use saline nose drops and a bulb syringe to loosen a stuffy nose. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be given to relieve fever, but never give a child aspirin.

For some children, RSV can be very serious. Contact your pediatrician if your child has a fever higher than 101 degrees; a cough lasting more than four days; thick, yellow, green or gray mucus coming from the nose or mouth; chest pain; or trouble breathing.

Always consult your child's pediatrician concerning your child's health.

For more pediatric health news parents can use, visit our blog: 700childrens.nationwidechildrens.org.

Mike Patrick, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children's Hospital and host of PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents.