Winter Warning – Preemies and RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)


The cold weather is approaching, and with it a host of viruses. Premature babies are at special risk of contracting these viruses and infections due to an underdeveloped immune system. During the fall and winter months, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is very common among infants and children. As parent or caregiver to a preemie, you’ll have the important task of protecting your preemie from this virus.

Preemie babies are especially at risk

Most children contract RSV and fight the virus independent of medical care. For preemies, RSV can be much more severe. The most common cause for hospital readmission in premature babies is respiratory illness. Those born with lung, heart, or other chronic health problems are particularly at risk. Of the 125,000 children who are hospitalized for RSV each year, the virus proves fatal for 1%-2%. RSV can lead to other respiratory infections such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

How can I tell if my baby has RSV?

For most infants and children, RSV exhibits the same symptoms of a common cold except symptoms can easily last two weeks. These symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Fussiness
  • Lethargy

If your baby exhibits more severe signs of RSV such as rapid, difficult breathing, blue skin, apnea (pauses in breathing), or coughing up mucus, he must see a doctor right away.

The treatment of RSV

Once your baby gets RSV, treatment depends on severity. There is no medication specifically intended for RSV, so your baby’s immune system must fight the virus before he starts to feel better. However, you can improve symptoms. As with any illness, your preemie baby will need plenty of rest and fluids. A rubber suction bulb should be used to clear mucus from baby’s nose, and a cool-mist humidifier can help with breathing. For high fevers, talk to your baby’s doctor about using a fever-reducing medication such as acetaminophen. If these home treatment methods prove ineffective, your baby may need to be treated for RSV in the hospital where he could be given oxygen, moist cool air, fluids, bronchodilators, antiviral medication, or placed on a ventilator.

RSV prevention tips

Before your high-risk preemie baby develops RSV, he can receive a medication called palivizumab (or Synagis) in the form of a shot during each of the peak months. Synagis can keep 55% of preemies from rehospitalization due to RSV. The most important preventative measure for family members of preemies is to wash hands frequently and change your clothes after being around other people, as the virus can live on your hands and clothes. It helps, too, if your baby can avoid public places and secondhand smoke. During your preemie baby’s first year when he’s most likely to catch viruses, try to keep him out of childcare situations where there are other children or anyone who is sneezing or coughing.

Because preemies are especially vulnerable to catching viruses and developing infections, it takes special care during the first year of life to avoid respiratory infections – such as RSV – that can become much worse than they would for full-term babies or older children. It’s easiest to deal with RSV if your baby doesn’t catch it in the first place!

What are some ways you strive to prevent illness in your home during the winter months? Share in the comments!


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