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Infant getting respiratory support

Does your child have a cold or respiratory syncytial virus infection?

December 1, 2021

Many children catch colds or get the flu during the fall and winter. Another illness that is common from late fall through early spring is respiratory syncytial virus infection or RSV.

The virus can spread from one person to another, and you can get it by touching unclean surfaces. Almost all children get RSV by their second birthday.

Most children with RSV have symptoms similar to a cold such as fever, cough, congestion, sneezing, runny nose, fussiness and poor feeding. They usually get better in a week or two.

Other infants and young children get very sick. About 100 to 500 U.S. children under 5 years old die each year because of RSV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 58,000 children with RSV go to the hospital because they are having trouble breathing or are dehydrated.

How do you know if your child is having trouble breathing? Watch the child's rib cage as he or she breathes in. If the rib cage caves in and forms and upside-down “V” shape under the neck, then the child is working too hard to breathe.

Call your doctor right away if your child is having trouble breathing or has any of the following symptoms:

  • fast breathing,
  • flaring of the nostrils,
  • head bobbing with breathing,
  • rhythmic grunting during breathing,
  • wheezing (a high-pitched purring or whistling sound),
  • dehydration (fewer than one wet diaper every eight hours),
  • gray or blue tongue, lips or skin, or
  • decreased activity and alertness.

There are no medicines to treat RSV, but here are some things you can do to help your child feel better:

  • Use nasal saline with gentle suctioning and a cool-mist humidifier to help your child breathe.
  • Make sure your child gets enough fluids and eats frequently. Breastfed babies do not need formula or water.
  • If your child is older than 6 months, you can give acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce low-grade fever. Do not give aspirin or cough and cold medications.

There is a medication called palivizumab that can help prevent severe illness in some infants, including those who were born prematurely and those with heart defects or weak immune systems. Your pediatrician will let you know if your baby can get the medication.

For more information on RSV, visit

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