What is RSV?

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What is RSV?

So first of all, what exactly is RSV?  RSV is short for Respiratory Syncytial Virus and it causes infections of the lower respiratory tract. Worldwide, RSV is the number one cause of lung disease and long-term lung morbidity. If you’ve got a young baby (especially if they were born prematurely or spent time in the NICU), you've probably heard a bit about RSV already - by the age of 2 most children will have had the virus so it’s surprising how common and extremely contagious it is!


Healthy children and adults usually will get a mild case of RSV with hardly any symptoms. It can appear just like a common cold which makes it pretty difficult to tell if a person has it. 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. Here in New Zealand Maori and Pacific babies are disproportionately represented, even if they were born at full term. 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. Here in New Zealand there is a higher risk of catching the virus during the cooler months (approx May through to September). 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 increases your baby's risk of lung infections. 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 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 - Zoono Microbe Surface Spray lasts for up to 30 days and makes this job a lot easier.


Any virus can be incredibly dangerous for medically fragile babies, and RSV is one of the worst -  it's actually 10 times more deadly than the flu. The theory that exposure to germs 'helps baby to build up their immunity' isn't true because they simply aren’t strong enough to fight it.

Staying isolated over winter, using a ‘don’t touch the baby’ sign or a cover, and sanitising everything in sight may sound extreme but it can be necessary! Don't worry about those people who think you’re being paranoid or over-protective, they’ve probably got no idea what you and your baby have been through. Ending up back in hospital with a seriously ill baby is any NICU parent’s worst nightmare, so for those first couple of years it's crucial to protect your baby the best you can.

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, 7 days a week), you can free call Healthline on 0800 611 116.

Posted: Tuesday 30 April 2019


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