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RSV in Babies: Understanding the Impact and Symptoms of Respiratory Syncytial Virus

What is RSV and How Does it Affect Babies?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a serious respiratory infection that can impact people of all ages, but it can sometimes become quite dangerous in babies. RSV in babies can be a serious issue because airways in babies are not well-developed yet and this is why babies are not able to cough up mucus easily like adults or older children. Furthermore, since their airways are so much smaller, the likelihood of experiencing airway blockages goes up exponentially, which may cause breathing difficulties.(1,2,3)

RSV can have serious consequences, especially for certain groups, including:(4)

  • Babies Younger Than Six Months: Infants in this age range are particularly vulnerable to severe RSV infections because their immune systems are still developing, making it harder for them to fight off the virus effectively.
  • Babies Born Prematurely: Premature infants are at a higher risk of developing severe RSV infections due to their underdeveloped immune systems and lungs. Their respiratory systems may be more susceptible to complications caused by RSV.
  • Babies With Lung or Immune System Diseases: Infants who have pre-existing lung conditions or weakened immune systems face increased risks with RSV. These conditions can make it harder for their bodies to combat the infection, leading to more severe symptoms and potential complications.

While Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can cause cold symptoms in many people, it can lead to more serious illnesses like bronchiolitis in babies. Bronchiolitis in babies is typically characterized by wheezing and a persistent cough. It is important to note that bronchiolitis is a more severe respiratory illness compared to the common cold. RSV can also lead to other severe infections such as pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization for treatment.

It is also important to keep in mind that RSV is a viral infection, and currently, there are no medications available to cure it or shorten the duration of the illness. Treatment for RSV in babies, therefore, primarily focuses on managing symptoms while the infection runs its course.

RSV transmission is most common from November to April when cooler temperatures lead to more indoor interactions and increased chances of viral spread. However, Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can occur earlier in the year as well. For example, in 2022, there was a higher number of RSV cases in October.(5)

Symptoms of RSV in Babies

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection in older children presents symptoms that are quite similar to that of a cold. In babies, though, the virus causes more severe symptoms. There is also a timeline of symptoms associated with RSV. Symptoms tend to appear within four to six days after the initial exposure to the virus.(6)

Symptoms of RSV infection in babies may include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy or sluggishness
  • Labored breathing or wheezing

Babies who are born prematurely or who have heart problems, a history of breathing issues, or wheezing, are more prone to experiencing Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) symptoms.(7)

How to Deal with RSV Infections in Babies?

The symptoms of RSV infection can range from mild cold symptoms to severe bronchiolitis. Even in cases where the symptoms are mild, it is always better to call your baby’s pediatrician if you suspect your baby might be having an Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. If your baby appears to have trouble breathing, you should get medical care at the earliest.(8)

In the most severe cases of RSV infections, a baby is put on a breathing device known as a mechanical ventilator. This device helps inflate a baby’s lungs until the virus runs out of its course. Doctors also routinely use bronchodilators for treating RSV, though many experts don’t recommend this for babies anymore.  If Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is also accompanied by dehydration in a baby, doctors may provide intravenous fluids.

It is important to remember that antibiotics will not help with RSV infection in babies as antibiotics are used for treating bacterial infections only, whereas RSV is a viral infection.(9)

In some cases, it might be that your doctor gives the go-ahead to treat RSV infection in your baby at home. You will, however, need a couple of tools. These will ensure that your baby’s mucus remains as thin as possible so that it does not affect their breathing. Items you will be needed include:(10)

  • A bulb syringe to clear any thick mucus secretions from your baby’s nose. It is best to use the bulb syringe before feeding your baby as having a clear nose will make it easier for your baby to eat. You can also use over-the-counter saline nasal drops.
  • A cool-mist humidifier introduces moisture in the air. This will help thin out the baby’s mucus. However, it is important that you clean out the humidifier properly after each use and also follow all the care instructions. Remember that hot water or steam humidifiers can be potentially harmful to your baby as they can lead to scalding.
  • If your baby has a fever, always consult their doctor about giving acetaminophen to your baby in case of fever. It is never a good idea to self-medicate your baby. Never give your baby aspirin as this can be dangerous to their health.

To prevent dehydration, make sure to offer your baby fluids like breast milk, formula, or an electrolyte-replacing solution recommended by your doctor. Keep your baby in an upright position using a stable seat during awake periods, avoiding car seats for sleep to prevent suffocation risks. Minimize exposure to cigarette smoke as it can worsen symptoms. At the same time, remember to seek advice from your pediatrician for your baby’s specific needs.

While taking care of your baby and dealing with the Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection, there are certain emergency symptoms that caregivers or parents must watch out for. These include:

  • Dehydration signs, such as a sunken fontanelle (soft spot), dry diapers, or lack of tears when crying.
  • Difficulty breathing, indicated by visible rib lines or retractions (skin pulling in) during breaths.
  • Cyanosis, characterized by blue fingernails or lips, suggesting insufficient oxygen and severe distress.
  • Fever exceeding 100°F (38°C) in babies under 3 months.
  • Fever surpassing 104°F (39°C) in children of any age.
  • Thick nasal discharge impeding the child’s ability to breathe.

If you observe any of these emergency symptoms in your baby, seek immediate medical attention.


When a baby has an RSV infection, it is crucial to take precautions to prevent the transmission of the infection. Keeping the infected child separate from other siblings or children can help minimize the spread. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can be transmitted through direct and indirect contact, emphasizing the importance of frequent handwashing and teaching the baby to cover sneezes and coughs.

Regularly cleaning toys and surfaces where the baby plays and eats can also reduce the spread of germs. While most babies recover from RSV within a week or two without requiring hospital treatment, it is important to seek emergency medical care if the baby shows signs of dehydration or experiences moderate to severe distress.

By following these preventative measures and seeking medical attention when necessary, you can help ensure your baby’s well-being and support their recovery from RSV.


  1. Jha, A., Jarvis, H., Fraser, C. and Openshaw, P., 2016. Respiratory syncytial virus. SARS, MERS and other viral lung infections.
  2. Stott, E.J. and Taylor, G., 1985. Respiratory syncytial virus. Archives of virology, 84(1-2), pp.1-52.
  3. Ruuskanen, O. and Ogra, P.L., 1993. Respiratory syncytial virus. Current problems in pediatrics, 23(2), pp.50-79.
  4. Mclntosh, K., 1997. Respiratory syncytial virus. In Viral Infections of Humans (pp. 691-711). Springer, Boston, MA.
  5. RSV in infants and Young Children (2022) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/high-risk/infants-young-children.html (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
  6. Symptoms and care of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) (2022) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/about/symptoms.html (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
  7. Proesmans, M., Rector, A., Keyaerts, E., Vandendijck, Y., Vermeulen, F., Sauer, K., Reynders, M., Verschelde, A., Laffut, W., Garmyn, K. and Fleischhackl, R., 2022. Risk factors for disease severity and increased medical resource utilization in respiratory syncytial virus (+) hospitalized children: A descriptive study conducted in four Belgian hospitals. Plos one, 17(6), p.e0268532.
  8. McIntosh, K., 1987. Respiratory syncytial virus infections in infants and children: diagnosis and treatment. Pediatrics in Review, 9(6), pp.191-196.
  9. Xing, Y. and Proesmans, M., 2019. New therapies for acute RSV infections: where are we?. European journal of pediatrics, 178, pp.131-138.
  10. Maggon, K. and Barik, S., 2004. New drugs and treatment for respiratory syncytial virus. Reviews in medical virology, 14(3), pp.149-168.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:June 30, 2023

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