Get AccuWeather alerts right in your browser!
Enable Notifications

It's not the common cold: How respiratory syncytial virus could threaten your child this winter

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

If your child is younger than 2 years old, he or she could be vulnerable to a potentially deadly virus disguised as the common cold this winter.

The common and highly contagious respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is most prevalent during fall, winter and spring, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Children catch RSV just like any other virus,” said The Colony ER Emergency Physician Dr. Marco Coppola, DO, FACEP.

“The two most common ways are by droplets of mucus in the air that land on the face or hands from coughing and sneezing, touching an object that has the virus living on it and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth,” Coppola said.

Mother and sick child at doctor's office

(Photo/Steve Debenpor/Getty Images)

RSV can impact people of any age, but when it infects the respiratory tracts of young children, it can lead to serious complications. Severity of the illness ranges anywhere from a cold to pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

Almost everyone contracts RSV by the time they are 2 years old, Coppola said. Although most children recover on their own, in rare cases, RSV can be life-threatening. The virus kills approximately 42 people annually in the United States, according to researchers at the University of Utah.

Julie Whitney, owner of Phillippi-Whitney Communications LLC, recalls Super Bowl weekend of 1995 as a frightening experience with RSV that landed her then 3-month-old son in the hospital for three days.

“He had a raspy, wheezing sound in his chest, and the pediatrician told me to keep an eye on it and if he stopped taking formula to let her know,” Whitney said.

Her son began struggling to drink his formula, even projectile vomiting it when his parents tried to feed him, Whitney said.

Whitney’s son was placed in respiratory isolation, where doctors worked to suction his lungs every few hours, as infants are too young to clear their own lungs by coughing.

“We left the room; it was horrific to watch,” Whitney said.

Her son was one of 57,000 children under age 5 who are hospitalized annually in the U.S. due to RSV infection, according to the CDC.

The virus hospitalizes approximately 3.4 million children under age 5 worldwide each year.

Symptoms, treatment and prevention

Most of RSV’s symptoms will appear to mimic those of the common cold, including fever, reduced appetite, wheezing, coughing and runny nose.

Parents of young children who aren’t yet verbal should pay attention to symptoms such as faster-than-normal breathing, sluggishness or tiredness and loss of appetite, said Coppola. Adults may experience similar symptoms for anywhere between three days and a week.

Currently, there’s no cure for RSV, so physicians treat symptoms associated with the illness.

“Fever reducers, cough suppressants, steroids for opening airways and even intravenous liquids for a patient that is dehydrated are all ways we treat RSV,” Coppola said.

Shoveling snow increases risk for winter heart attacks, experts say
The dangers of frostbite: How to prevent, spot and treat it
5 warning signs that you may have vitamin D deficiency
How to prevent flare-ups of asthma triggered by cold weather
5 ways your body combats cold weather's harsh impacts

Medical experts advise frequent hand-washing and covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing to avoid spreading the illness.

Current vaccine research

Researchers have worked to develop an effective RSV vaccine since the 1960s.

“The virus by itself does not induce a very good antibody response and affects very young babies, which explains why it has been so difficult to develop vaccines,” said said Dr. Octavio Ramilo, division chief of Infectious Diseases at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

A few years after the virus was discovered, researchers developed and administered a provisional vaccine that turned out to be ineffective.

“Not only did it not work, but some of the babies who [were vaccinated] got very sick, and there were a few deaths,” Ramilo said.

Decades later, there is still no approved RSV vaccine, but medical experts continue researching effective methods of protecting children, the elderly and pregnant women against the virus.

“I’m much more optimistic than I was five or even 10 years ago,” said Ramilo, who is part of a team of researchers who have worked on developing an RSV vaccine for children worldwide over the past 20 years.

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit

AccuWeather ready logo

Report a Typo


Comments that don't add to the conversation may be automatically or manually removed by Facebook or AccuWeather. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.

More Weather News