What is RSV?

What is RSV?

So first of all, what exactly is RSV?  RSV is short for Respiratory Syncytial Virus and it causes infections of the lungs and airways. If you’ve got a young baby (especially if your baby was early or in the NICU), you might have heard a bit about RSV already, but it’s surprising how common and extremely contagious it is - most children will have had it by the age of 2!


Healthy children and adults usually will get a mild case of RSV with hardly any symptoms. It can appear just like a common cold, making it pretty impossible to tell if a person has it or something else. These are some of the early symptoms of RSV, which can last for 1-2 weeks:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • Low grade fever - under 38°C
  • Headache


For babies born prematurely, or with low immunity, heart or lung problems, RSV can cause a severe or even life-threatening infection of Bronchiolitis or Pneumonia. Signs of a serious infection are:

  • Poor feeding or dehydration
  • Being unusually sleepy (lethargic)
  • Fever of more than 38°C
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing – a high pitched whistling sound that can usually be heard when baby exhales
  • Rapid, short or shallow breathing
  • Indrawing (sucking in) of the chest – anywhere from the collarbone or neck area, down to baby’s tummy just below the ribcage
  • Baby only sleeping in an upright position, it’s easier to breathe sitting up than lying down
  • Bluish colour of the skin, lips or fingernails


If your baby seems unwell then get to the doctor or hospital straight away! Babies can get worse very quickly and it’s always safest to get them checked out just in case. Even if you’ve already been to the doctor, trust your instincts and go back again if you’re worried or if your baby shows signs of struggling.


How can you avoid catching RSV? It can be pretty overwhelming but there are some very simple things you can do to try to keep your baby healthy. From May to September there is a higher risk of catching the virus so be extra careful with basic hygiene. Regular hand washing or using a sanitiser really can make a difference!

  • Make sure any visitors haven’t been sick in the last couple of weeks and that they wash or sanitise their hands before touching your baby.
  • Exposure to smoke puts your baby at higher risk. Don’t let anyone smoke around your baby and visitors should be wearing clean clothes if they want cuddles.
  • More people = more germs. Stay away from crowded places as much as you can - malls, schools, childcare centres, churches and even large family gatherings. If you do need to get out of the house try to avoid getting too close to people, perhaps use a muslin cover over baby’s capsule and print one of our free Pram Signs to help you with this!
  • RSV spreads easily through direct contact and in moisture droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus can survive for several hours on surfaces like tables, door handles, petrol pumps, shopping trolleys and plastic toys. Cleaning and disinfecting hard surfaces can help stop the spread - a disinfectant spray makes this job easier.


A virus can be incredibly dangerous for medically fragile babies and RSV is actually 10 times more deadly than the flu. Exposure to germs doesn’t help baby to build up their immunity because they simply aren’t strong enough to fight it.

There’s quite a lot of people out there who might think you’re being over the top or too protective but they’ve probably got no idea what you and your baby have been through. Staying isolated over winter, using a ‘don’t touch the baby’ sign and sanitising everything in sight may sound extreme but it can be necessary! Ending up back in hospital with a seriously ill baby is any NICU parent’s worst nightmare, so protecting our babies is the most important thing.

The content on www.smallbabies.co.nz is not intend or recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. To speak to a registered nurse at any time (day or night), you can free call Healthline on 0800 611 116.

Posted: Tuesday 30 April 2019