At first, mom Sarah Driscoll thought her 6-week-old baby girl, Charley, had a cold. It was only when her child’s symptoms changed dramatically that Driscoll began to suspect that her child had RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) – a very common, contagious airborne virus that is currently on the rise across the US.
At first, “she was very congested and coughing,” Driscoll, who lives in Mass., tells Yahoo Life. But then her child’s cough began to worsen, to the point where Driscoll felt she had to keep Charley elevated the entire time. “It was almost like she was choking on whatever was in her throat,” she says. “I felt like she was gasping for breath at times.”
Charley’s labored breathing left Driscoll feeling helpless. “It was scary,” she says, adding: “She’s my first and only.”
Driscoll heard about RSV on social media, saying, “It was my biggest fear.” Although she didn’t know of any other children with RSV at the time, Driscoll says “there’s something in my gut that told me my baby will have this”.
And she was right. Concerned about her child’s labored breathing, Driscoll took Charley to the emergency room and admitted her immediately. Driscoll was told that if Charley had been put to bed that night instead of going to the emergency room, “we wouldn’t have had her in the morning.”
Driscoll’s baby spent a week in the hospital, including several nights in the ICU, needing oxygen. “She was on a feeding tube because they didn’t want her to choke,” says Driscoll. “They had to suction his lungs over and over again.” She tells him: “He was looking at her.”
Charley made a full recovery, but Driscoll says she will think about her child’s health scare with RSV for years. “It’s something that bothered me,” she says.
Mum-of-five Shanisty Ireland had a similarly terrifying experience with her two-month-old baby Asa, after a cold turned out to be RSV. Ireland tells Yahoo Life that the progression from a common cold to more serious symptoms happened “remarkably” quickly.
After a normal day of running errands with her family, Éire went for a 30 minute jog while her husband was at home with the kids. In that short time, her baby Asa “went from a cold to — boom! — we’re packing up and going to the children’s hospital,” she says. “It was very fast.”
Ireland had the peace of mind to take a video of her baby Asa’s labored breathing and send it to her sister-in-law, who is a pediatric nurse practitioner. “She told me don’t even go back to the pediatrician — just go to the hospital,” says Ireland, who lives in Ohio. “I give her credit for saving Asa.”
It also helped that Ireland and her husband had dealt with RSV before, so they knew the signs to look out for. Their older child Adam, now 6, contracted RSV at two months old — the same age as Asa — and had to be rushed to the emergency room because he was “very sick very much,” says Ireland.
After five days in hospital, Asa began to recover and Ireland was able to bring him home.
What are the symptoms of RSV to look out for?
Since an unprecedented surge of RSV is occurring, it is important to know the symptoms, especially in small children since the infection can progress to respiratory distress, according to Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association and a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California (The same county that recently declared a health emergency due to RSV and the flu.) “Small children and small children are always at risk and it is important to always look for warning signs,” he says.
RSV can feel like a regular cold — namely, “runny nose, decreased appetite, slight cough, slight sneezing and fever,” El-Hasan tells Yahoo Life. “But it can cause respiratory problems such as wheezing, especially in small children, the elderly and anyone at risk of chronic disease.”
Second-hand smoke in the home also makes matters worse. Research shows that it puts infants and young children at higher risk of hospitalization for RSV, as well as increasing the severity of the illness. By smoking, “you’re not just hurting yourself—you’re hurting everyone in the house,” says El-Hasan.
How is RSV treated?
Most RSV infections resolve on their own within a week or two, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and can be managed with children’s acetaminophen for fever. If a child is wheezing, their doctor may prescribe albuterol, which is an inhaler also used to treat asthma, or they may prescribe steroids, El-Hasan says.
However, in some cases — such as with the Irish and Driscoll children — RSV can lead to serious infections such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia, according to the CDC. In fact, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children under 1 year of age. Although rare, in some cases RSV can be fatal. There are up to 500 RSV-related deaths in children under 5 each year, according to the CDC.
‘You know your child better than anyone’
Éire and Driscoll advise parents not to second guess themselves when their children are sick and to follow their instincts. “Even if your doctor tells you your baby is fine, you know your baby better than anyone,” says Driscoll. “So get a second opinion.”
El-Hasan agrees, recommending to parents: “Trust your instinct if you think something is wrong with your child or something doesn’t feel right – at least call someone and ask. I think that’s very important.”
But if symptoms are worsening, Ireland says “don’t be afraid” to go straight to the emergency room. “If breathing is becoming more labored, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” she says. “If they’re really struggling to breathe, don’t have a wet diaper and their lips are turning blue, there’s no reason to hang around because it could be dangerous.”
Driscoll and Ireland also encourage parents to set boundaries with others, including family members, to protect their children’s health, especially during cold and flu season. “If you are not comfortable with people who had a cold last week coming into your house, you can say, ‘Perhaps it is better to come another time or in the spring when we have passed this illness, ‘” says Ireland. “A lot of women, especially moms, don’t want to say no, but we have every right to advocate for the welfare of our children.”
El-Hasan says that since RSV is spread through the air as well as through contact, frequent hand washing is important. “If you’re sick, don’t kiss other people,” he says. “Maybe the fist bump and handshake is the best way to go. If you are going to touch your face, wash your hands before and after.”
As parents, Ireland says, “We can’t control how or when our children get sick, especially when you have other children. We cannot live in a bubble… The only thing we have control over as parents is the actions we take when they do do get sick.”
For Ireland and Driscoll, their scary experiences with the respiratory disease inspired them to continue talking to other parents about the symptoms of RSV, raising awareness. “It can literally happen to anyone,” Ireland says. “It can strike any family.”
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