Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has been worrying parents of young infants for decades. This infection has long been characterized as dangerous and even deadly. It can cause severe breathing difficulty and is one of the most common causes for pediatric hospitalization, especially in infants less than six months of age. Since the 1970s, RSV had been thought to cause death in as many as 4,500 babies a year. However, a December 2014 study published in Pediatrics revealed some encouraging data on just how deadly this virus can be.
Dr. Carrie Byington, professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah and the study’s lead investigator, looked at over 850,000 RSV-associated hospitalizations between 2000 and 2011. From two large datasets, she found that instead of roughly 4,500, only about 42 children die annually in the United States from RSV infection. That difference is huge and should be reason for parents to have much less fear if their young infant contracts the virus. “The news is very good for parents and their babies,” says Dr. Byington.
Since the 1970s, medical care for RSV has dramatically advanced. “Although RSV is one of the most common causes for infant hospitalizations, we can support infants through this infection.” Byington said.
What was found in the study is that among those with RSV who died, a majority had complex chronic medical conditions such as congenital heart disease, immune disorders, or lung disease secondary to prematurity.
RSV affects nearly all children prior to age 2-3 years old. Symptoms of RSV include common cold symptoms such as mild cough, nasal congestion, and sometimes a fever. If your child has these symptoms and is having difficulty feeding or breathing, your pediatrician should be contacted for prompt evaluation. Most hospitalizations will be 2-3 days in length and typically only require supportive care (such as intravenous fluids, supplemental oxygen, and nasal suctioning).
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2020
- Deaths associated with RSV are uncommon in the United States in the 21st century.
- Infants with complex chronic medical conditions account for the majority of deaths associated with RSV.
- High-risk infants and children with cold symptoms causing difficulty feeding or breathing should be evaluated by their pediatrician promptly.