Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and Its Potential Risks in Infants, Toddlers and the Elderly

While most of us were masked up and social distancing, human respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV infection, took somewhat of a hiatus; but now that we are coming into more contact with others, and social distancing as well as masking up are becoming less prevalent, respiratory syncytial virus is raging full steam ahead.

Whereas we typically see only three percent of viral tests for the respiratory syncytial virus coming back positive; very recently we’ve seen approximately ten percent of tests for the respiratory syncytial virus show positive results. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, respiratory syncytial virus is the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchitis in babies under one year; and each year in the United States, over 177,000 are hospitalized and more than 14,000 die. 

Those 65 years of age and over with weakened immune systems, chronic lung issues or heart disease are also at a higher risk. Additionally, anyone over 65 with COPD or asthma is more apt to develop more serious symptoms of the respiratory syncytial virus. Although it tends to be more common and severe in young children and the elderly, no one else is immune…particularly any population suffering from a weakened immune system, neuromuscular disorder, heart disease or lung issues. There are more than 3 million cases of the respiratory syncytial virus documented every year in the United States alone.

So, what exactly is the respiratory syncytial virus? Respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV infection, is a viral infection of the respiratory system that can last several days or weeks. Typically transmitted through airborne exposure, respiratory syncytial virus infection is the result of the virus entering the eyes, nose and mouth and can spread through infected airborne droplets caused by the sneezing, coughing or even simply talking of an infected person. Respiratory syncytial virus can also be passed from person to person by direct contact, such as kissing, hugging, handshaking, etc. This potentially dangerous virus can also survive on surfaces – particularly high touch areas such as doorknobs, light switches, elevator buttons, countertops, etc.

Symptoms are very similar with that of the common cold, but possess a much larger risk of developing from upper respiratory discomfort into a lower lung infection. Depending upon the age and health of the person infected with the respiratory syncytial virus, symptoms can range from less severe, mild flu symptoms (more commonly seen in older children, young adults and adults of a moderate age) including a stuffy or runny nose, mild headaches, mild cough, low fever and scratchy or sore throat; to more severe symptoms (more often seen in infants, toddlers, those with compromised immune systems and the elderly) which can include discoloration of the skin, difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, wheezing, severe cough and a high fever.

If respiratory syncytial virus is not treated promptly and managed properly, complications from infection of the respiratory syncytial virus may lead to pneumonia and bronchitis. In addition, infection of the middle ear can arise, which is especially prevalent in children due to their shorter Eustachian tubes. Children who have suffered from severe symptoms of the respiratory syncytial virus may also suffer from asthma later in life.

The population most at risk of experiencing potentially dangerous respiratory syncytial virus symptoms is infants younger than six months and especially those infants born at 29 weeks gestation. Each year, more than 50,000 children under the age of five show respiratory syncytial virus symptoms so severe that they require hospitalization; and all infants and toddlers may be at a higher risk this year.

So, as the parent of a very small child, what can you do to remain vigilant in the fight against the respiratory syncytial virus? You personally can engage in frequent handwashing, wear a mask, avoid crowds and get vaccinated for the flu. You also want to keep a close eye on your child when he or she has even the common cold, so that it doesn’t progress into something far more serious, such as a lower lung infection. For instance, ask yourself the following questions: Are you noticing that your infant is breathing faster or sucking in his or her belly a lot simply to breathe? Is your child experiencing a lack of appetite; is he working harder to breathe while feeding; and is he ingesting enough to maintain adequate hydration?

However, young children aren’t the only population at greater risk with respiratory syncytial virus. Respiratory syncytial virus is now also recognized as a significant health risk for the elderly; with research indicating that the impact of respiratory syncytial virus may be very similar to that of the flu and especially dangerous in places, like long-term care facilities, where frequent close contact with others is extremely hard to avoid.

In all ages, certain nutritional intake can also aid in the prevention and management of the respiratory syncytial virus. For instance, the following dietary items are recommended: foods rich in vitamin C, such as oranges, tomatoes, broccoli and berries; foods with vitamin E, including almonds, sweet potatoes and avocados; and omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in salmon, spinach, red lentils and navy beans. Foods and drinks to avoid include alcoholic beverages and anything with high amounts of sulfites and preservatives, such as pickles.

To prevent respiratory syncytial virus infection, recommendations include frequent handwashing and limiting contact, especially when it comes to very young children and the elderly. Diagnosis may be acquired with something as simple as a nasal swab test by a primary care physician or pediatrician. Severe cases of respiratory syncytial virus may be referred to a pulmonologist or infectious disease specialist.

Treatment may include over the counter fever reducing medications, intravenous therapy to prevent dehydration and oxygen therapy to improve breathing. Supportive self-care to manage symptoms may include nasal saline drops to alleviate congestion, drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and use of a humidifier to ease breathing.

You may be wondering if the respiratory syncytial virus is preventable with a vaccine. Unfortunately, there are no currently approved vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus, but the clinical trial race is currently taking place. For more information or to become a clinical trial participant, contact Velocity Clinical Research at 386-428-7730 Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. or Friday from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.