What You Need to Know about RSV
Understanding Respiratory Syncytial Virus
For children in the emergency room or hospital setting, there is a rapid detection test for RSV done from a swab of the nose. The result is available within a few hours. This at least allows an accurate and quick diagnosis, so small infants who are in the early course of the illness can be watched closely for symptoms that the illness is progressing into the lungs. It also lets a family know who is infectious, to keep that child away from other, more vulnerable children. That’s the good news.
Prevention and Treatment
The bad news: There is little to offer in the way of an RSV cure. As yet, there is no medicine to destroy RSV as there is, say, for strep throat (penicillin). Because RSV is a virus, our antibiotics, effective only on bacteria, don’t work at all. For the wheezing component of the illness, asthma medicines called bronchodilators sometimes offer relief, but no cure. Even hospitalization offers mostly supportive care: oxygen if necessary, intravenous fluid if intake isn’t adequate, and very, very close observation to assist breathing if the child can no longer breathe on his own. After a few days most children will slowly begin to pull out of this illness, though it can be a tough few days until they do.
Given that there is no cure, keeping the epidemics of RSV under control depends upon preventing the spread of this germ. The most effective prevention strategy is also the one that makes good common sense anyway—hand washing. It can’t be stressed enough that washing hands after handling children, tissues, and anything that may carry this germ will go a long way toward preventing other infections.
Knowledge is also important. Parents, especially parents of premature or chronically ill infants, should be aware of RSV and take efforts to isolate their children from infected individuals, even if it seems that all that individual has is a bad cold. For the highest-risk infants, there are two protective antibody preparations available that can reduce the chance of a hospitalization by about 50 percent if infected. These preparations are offered from October to April monthly, and are given either through an IV or as a shot. These treatments are expensive and require multiple office visits, but are still recommended when the risk of severe disease is high.
As yet, despite hard effort, there is no effective vaccine or cure for RSV. For now, we are reliant upon the public—parents, caregivers, and medical personnel alike—to use knowledge, cleanliness, and appropriate isolation measures to keep this germ and RSV illness at bay.
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