HOUSTON (February 24, 2009)

The highly contagious respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can cause wheezing and pneumonia in children, is far more common than previously believed, according to a new study.

RSV sends 2.1 million kids under age 5 to the doctor or hospital each year, according to researchers, who looked at data for more than 5,000 youngsters. They estimate that RSV infection is the cause of 1 in every 13 outpatient visits to doctors each year by children under age 5, and 1 in 38 emergency department visits.

Previously, experts believed that RSV didn't typically cause many problems in children older than 1 year, but this study shows that each year a significant number of older kids are still being hospitalized due to RSV infection.

More About RSV

RSV is highly contagious and can be spread through droplets containing the virus when someone coughs or sneezes. The virus also can live on surfaces such as countertops or doorknobs, and on hands and clothing. It's easily spread when a person touches an object or surface contaminated with the virus.

In adults, RSV may only produce symptoms of a common cold, but in kids can lead to more serious illnesses. Infection can spread rapidly through schools and childcare centers. Infants often get it when older kids carry the virus home from school and pass it to them. Almost all kids are infected with RSV at least once by the time they're 2 years old.

RSV outbreaks are most common in the winter months, and are the leading cause of wintertime hospital admissions of babies.

What This Means to You

Because RSV is easily spread through touching people or surfaces that are infected, frequent handwashing can go a long way toward preventing it from infecting a household. It's best to wash your hands after having any contact with someone who has any cold symptoms. And keep your school-age child with a cold away from younger siblings - particularly infants - until the symptoms pass.

Most cases of RSV are mild and require no specific treatment from doctors. In infants, however, an RSV infection can be more serious and may require hospitalization so that the baby can be watched closely, receive fluids, and, if necessary, be treated for breathing problems.

Be sure to call the doctor if your child might has any of these symptoms:

  • high fever with ill appearance
  • thick nasal discharge that is yellow, green, or gray
  • worsening cough or cough that produces yellow, green, or gray mucus
  • rapid breathing or working hard to breathe

Source: "The Burden of Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection in Young Children," New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 2009.