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 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 learnt a bit about RSV already - by the age of 2 most children will have had the virus so it’s surprisingly common and extremely contagious.


Healthy children and adults usually will get a mild case of RSV with hardly any symptoms. It can appear just like a regular 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. Maori and Pacific babies are disproportionately represented in hospital admissions, 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 is 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, please 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? With RSV being so common it seems hard to stay safe, but there are some very simple things you can do to try to keep your baby healthy. For us 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, this is where regular hand washing or using 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. An adult is usually contagious for up to 8 days, but babies or people with reduced immunity may be contagious for up to 4 weeks.
  • 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 - New Edition Everything Sanitising Spray lasts for up to 30 days and makes this job a lot easier.


Any virus can be incredibly dangerous for medically fragile babies, but RSV is one of the worst - it's actually 10 times more deadly than the flu. Staying isolated over winter, using a ‘don’t touch the baby’ sign, keeping baby’s pram/capsule covered, and sanitising everything as we go may sound extreme, but these things are necessary to reduce the chances of catching it. Being back in the ICU is any parent’s worst nightmare, so for those first couple of years it's crucial to protect our babies the best we can.


Now there's always going to be some people who think we’re being paranoid, over-protective and unreasonable. Honestly they probably have no understanding of what we've been through just to make it home from the NICU, or what it would mean if our little ones do catch RSV. After spending months in the hospital, we’re just trying our hardest to keep our babies safe in the outside world – is that really unreasonable? The common theory that exposure to germs 'helps build up their immunity' isn't true at all, because at this point our baby simply isn’t strong enough to fight it. Studies show that a premature baby’s immune system is weak for at least two years, so being exposed to a serious virus is a huge risk.


No parent should have to watch their baby deteriorate, rush them to an emergency clinic or call an ambulance, sit helplessly by their baby’s bedside as they fight for every breath, hooked up to oxygen and pumped full of medicine, or even put into an induced coma to give them a chance of survival. This may sound overly dramatic, but the reality is that every year countless babies end up in intensive care and some won’t make it home. Be your baby's advocate, be cautious and don't feel bad about turning visitors away if you need to, because it might just save your baby's life.


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.

Tags: RSV  Virus  Medically Fragile  

Posted: Tuesday 30 April 2019


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