While the United States and much of the world is focused on the tracking and prevention of COVID-19, healthcare providers warn that other seasonal viruses can pose an equally dangerous threat, especially to young children. Respiratory syncytial virus or RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms, but for certain categories of children it can lead to hospitalization and even death.
So, what is the difference between RSV and COVID?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Over 57,000 hospitalizations, 500,000 emergency department visits and 1.5 million outpatient clinic visits among children under 5 years of age are attributed to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections each year in the United States.” While most children will contract RSV at some point, for certain groups of kids the danger is much more significant.
“We know that RSV is highly contagious seasonal virus that infects nearly every child by the age of two,” Dr. Michael Forbes is a Pediatric & Adolescent Intensive Care Specialist and the Director of PICU Clinical Research & Outcomes Analysis at Akron Children’s Hospital tells Parentology. The symptoms of RSV can include runny nose, fever, coughing, wheezing and loss of appetite.
These symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of COVID, so how can parents tell the difference or know when they should be concerned?
Forbes says that knowing if your child falls into a high-risk category is key. “Both RSV and coronavirus clinically look the same. So whether you’re a veteran parent or a first-time parent, there’s no way for someone to be able to distinguish between RSV and Coronavirus in children. They’re indistinguishable really.”
There are three main categories that are at higher risk for complications from RSV:
- Babies who are born pre-term
- Babies who have congenital heart disease
- Babies who have chronic lung disease
If you’re not sure if your child falls into one of these categories, Forbes recommends talking with your pediatrician. It’s not unusual that parents may not be certain. “When your baby is born pre-term or has congenital heart disease or any of those high-risk factors, it’s kind of overwhelming and you’re hearing a lot of information,” Forbes says. A call or visit to your pediatrician will ensure that you’re aware of your child’s risk.
While parents need to be concerned about both coronavirus and RSV, especially with high-risk children, Forbes cautions that RSV is much more prevalent.
“The way that RSV causes respiratory symptoms is very different than coronavirus, so as a bug it’s much more common and more dangerous for pre-term infants and infants who are at high risk for RSV disease,” he says. “Coronavirus is just not as common as RSV.”
RSV is seasonal like the flu, generally from September to April. However, unlike the flu there is no vaccine.
“The good news is we know how to prevent this. The bad news is there’s no specific treatment for it,” Forbes states. Because coronavirus and RSV are so similar, prevention and early intervention are key — good hand hygiene, keeping the environment clean, and isolating your high-risk child from anyone that might appear symptomatic will all lower your risk of exposure to RSV.
In short, Forbes encourages parents to keep up the same measures they’ve been implementing over the past six months. “The things that are working against coronavirus absolutely will also work against RSV.”
It’s also important that you seek treatment for your child once you notice symptoms. While many parents may be apprehensive about a doctor’s office or an emergency room visit, Forbes warns not to wait.
“Once they start having sneezing, mucus production out of their noses, if they start coughing—you want to notify your pediatrician right away,” he says. “Particularly if you’re in that pre-term, heart disease, chronic lung disease category because it can move really, really quickly. You really want to bring those kids in as soon as possible.”
Parents with questions or seeking additional information about symptoms and risk can visit rsvprotection.com.
Difference Between RSV and COVID — Sources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Dr. Michael Forbes, Pediatric & Adolescent Intensive Care Specialist, Director of PICU Clinical Research & Outcomes Analysis at Akron Children’s Hospital