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This article originally appeared in the Jan. 17, 2013, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Flu isn’t the only three-letter word making a menace of itself this winter: RSV cases are steadily moving up. Just at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, 137 children were admitted to the hospital with RSV in December alone. January numbers are on track to keep up that trend. But just what is RSV?

RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages. It is a common cause of respiratory illness particularly in young children, although adults are not immune. In adults, RSV symptoms are similar to those of a common cold, such as a stuffy or runny nose, cough, fever, sore throat, headache and general feeling of being sick. In healthy children and adults, doctors often don’t distinguish RSV from a common cold because the symptoms and outcomes are so similar.

However, premature babies and children with serious diseases that affect their heart, lungs or immune system are at much higher risk for complications as a result of RSV. For these patients, RSV infections can often lead to more serious illnesses that require hospitalization. Doctors can diagnose RSV in at-risk children through a nasal swab or a suction specimen through a bulb syringe.

Like the flu or common cold, RSV is highly contagious and can spread by coughs, sneezes and surfaces that a person with RSV has touched. Because it is so contagious, RSV often spreads quickly throughout schools and day care centers. Older children often carry the virus home and pass it on to babies. In fact, nearly all children have been infected with RSV by the time they’re 2 years old.

Hand washing becomes a buzz word every flu and RSV season, but it really is the most important part of stopping the spread of these viruses. Parents should encourage frequent hand washing, particularly after shaking hands or coming into contact with someone with flu symptoms. Older children with a cold should be kept away from babies to the extent that it’s possible.

Premature and at-risk infants can be given a monthly injection of RSV antibodies to protect them during RSV season, which typically occurs from November to April. These monthly injections must be repeated during the first one or two RSV seasons to keep children at high risk protected. Your child’s pediatrician will know if your child is considered high risk for RSV.

Most cases of RSV in healthy older children are mild and don’t require treatment from doctors. Parents of a child with RSV should treat it similarly to a cold, letting the child take time for rest and making sure they drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. RSV in babies is more serious and may require hospitalization so doctors can monitor the baby’s fluids and breathing closely.

Parents should contact their child’s doctor if a child begins experiencing a high fever with ill appearance, thick nasal discharge, cough that produces yellow or green mucus, signs of dehydration or difficulty breathing. In young babies, unusual irritability or refusing to eat can be warning signs. Parents should always seek immediate medical help if their child is breathing rapidly, becomes very lethargic or his or her lips or fingernails appear blue.

It may seem like everyone you know is suffering from some winter ailment, but spring is right around the corner! In the meantime, practice good hand washing and stay healthy this flu season.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is IMMUNO Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University.  If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at

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