Winter arrived suddenly in Johannesburg and so did the RS virus. In the last two weeks I have seen a sudden rise in the number of small babies presenting with bronchiolitis. The cause…RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus). In most cases these little ones feel awful for between four and eight days but for others it may take as long as three weeks to clear. This current outbreak has resulted in a number of admissions to hospital.
What is RSV?
- RSV is a viral infection.
- The full name of the virus is Respiratory syncytial virus.
- It causes infection in the respiratory tract namely the airway and lungs.
- By the age of two most babies have had RSV.
How is RSV spread?
- The virus is highly contagious.
- It is spread through both direct and indirect contact with the secretions of someone suffering from RSV. A cough or sneeze from someone with RSV would send hundreds of these tiny particles into the air and this is likely to make others ill.
- It can survive on hard surfaces like tables, toys, floors, walls, hands and clothing for several hours. Controlling the spread is therefore difficult.
- It is most contagious in the first 4 days of an individual having the virus but someone who has had RSV may infect others for two weeks.
Is RSV dangerous?
Since RSV affects the airways it can be a serious condition because it may make breathing difficult. It may also lead to other serious illnesses. Those most at risk are:
- Premature babies
- Babies less than six months of age.
- Babies with a poor immune system like those with HIV or other chronic illnesses
- Children less than 2 years with heart or lung problems
What are the signs and symptoms of RSV?
RSV generally starts with symptoms like that of a common cold. The babies who have been brought into my practice have generally been struggling to breathe with a definite diagnosis of bronchiolitis. The symptoms are likely to include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Decreased appetite
- Lethargy (lack of energy)
Are there complications related to RSV?
Children older than 6 months are likely to experience RSV as a nasty cold but there are most definitely complications which may occur as a result of RSV. These complications include:
- Ear infections
What can be done about an RSV infection?
Since RSV is a virus antibiotic treatment is not indicated. The treatment given is merely supportive care, which helps to alleviate the symptoms while the body builds up immunity to the virus.
In mild cases you can try using the following:
- A humidifier
- Decongestant nose drops
- Medicine to control fever
- Increased fluid intake
- Keeping your baby propped up in an upright position to make breathing easier
In more severe cases the baby may need to be hospitalized. If this is the case the doctor is likely to give the child oxygen while controlling fever and monitoring the oxygen levels in the bloodstream.
Only in extreme cases may a baby need to be ventilated. This is only necessary if the baby has an apnoea (stops breathing) or is in severe respiratory distress.
Winter is upon us and yes humans have been doing this for a very long time now so we don’t need to get into a huge panic. What I would ask is for family and friends with children to be mindful of visiting that cute little newborn. They are most at risk and it is honestly the last thing a new parent wants to go through. Standing by, watching your tiny baby struggle to breathe is not what any parent wants to experience. Blame it on your paediatrician. I give the parents in my practice full permission to ban any sick person from coming into contact with or handling their baby. Strictly doctor’s orders! There will be plenty of time for that when they have recovered from their winter colds. You do not want to expose your baby to this highly contagious, potentially dangerous virus.