RSV: Three Little Letters, One Scary Diagnosis

We recently changed our visitor policy in the NICU at UCMC because of the nasty cold, flu and RSV season we’re experiencing. Now, only parents are able to visit their babies. And every day we hear from disappointed grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends who don’t understand why they can’t see their granddaughter, niece or nephew.  It’s a very simple, and extremely important, reason: we need to keep these fragile, critically ill babies as healthy as possible.

What is RSV?

Everyone is familiar with the cold or flu, but many people have never heard of RSV. RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, impacts the lungs and breathing passages. It often begins just like the common cold – with a runny nose and watery eyes. Coughing, sneezing, fever and difficulty breathing can develop within a few days. RSV can lead to more severe illnesses, including bronchiolitis and pneumonia . These can cause serious complications in a pre-term baby requiring mechanical ventilation for respiratory support and isolation.

RSV puts us on edge in the NICU for three reasons:

  1. It is highly contagious. RSV is very easy to spread. It can be spread by coughing or sneezing, and it lives on surfaces for hours, making it extremely easy to transmit from person to person. All it takes is rubbing your eye, scratching your nose or clearing a tickle in your throat to leave the virus in the NICU.
  2. You may not realize you have it. Healthy adults with RSV may only have a runny nose or watery eyes. They might not have any symptoms at all, but that won’t stop them from spreading the virus to others. RSV is also extremely common among children. Almost every child will have been sick with RSV by the time they are three years old, but usually experience symptoms no more serious than a cold.
  3. It impacts the lungs and airways. Premature babies struggle to breathe on a daily basis in the NICU because of their underdeveloped lungs. So when any illness or obstacle gets in their way, it can be a life-threatening situation.  Even the babies in our NICU who are close to going home can experience a major setback if they get sick with RSV, adding days or weeks to what has already been a long NICU stay.  If a premature baby at home gets RSV, it can easily land him or her back in the hospital.

What can you do?

If you have a premature baby in the NICU, take the time to talk with family and friends. Explain to them why RSV is such a serious concern for babies born early. Offer to bring home pictures and videos so relatives can get to know your child.

Talking to friends and family now, while your baby is still in the NICU, also helps lay the groundwork for the extra precautions you will need to take once your baby comes home – like requiring all visitors to wash their hands before touching your child, or asking sick family members to refrain from stopping by the house.

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