Was it just us, or was there a bigger-than-usual surge of sick bugs and viruses just before (and right through) Christmas, in the weeks just-gone? From norovirus (yep, we had it in my house) to awful colds to the RSV virus, which can become very serious, it’s been intense.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV for short) cases are still hitting higher-than-average numbers in the UK and US. So, what can we proactively do at home, to support ourselves and our kids? Is RSV contagious without a fever? How long will RSV last, if it hits? And, when should we head to the GP or hospital for medical support? Keep reading and bookmark this 101 tool kit, to ride out the RSV spike.
RSV cases up 11 per cent on last year
Just before Christmas, when cases tend to ramp up, data showed a significant year-on-year increase in RSV cases across the UK, with a daily average of 146 children in hospital and 11% more cases than the previous year.
RSV is a virus, and transmitted through contact with droplets from the nose and throat – think coughing on the tube, sneezing in the classroom, etc. It usually affects children, and features the usual cold-like symptoms. However, it can become much more serious.
RSV treatment at-home – your top questions and tool kit
From steam treatment, rest and fluids to fever checks, home testing and baby/toddler remedies, we’ve rounded up the top RSV questions from parents and carers, plus the most effective ways to support your family at-home, before or after you seek medical advice.
What is RSV?
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is transmitted by contact with droplets from coughing and sneezing, and is in the same ‘virus family’ as parainfluenza, mumps and measles. It’s one of the most common viruses that cause coughs and colds in winter.
RSV predictably becomes more of a problem from October onwards (in temperate climates like the UK and parts of the US), for around 4 to 5 months, peaking in December and January.
It’s usually a mild illness, but can be severe – and even life-threatening – in a small number of cases. According to gov.uk, RSV:
- is the most common cause of bronchiolitis
- infects over 60 per cent of children by age 1
- infects over 80 per cent by age 2
- RSV antibodies developed in childhood don’t prevent further infections throughout life
- presents greatest risk in the very young – under age 1 – the elderly, and people at greater risk of respiratory disease
Head here for more in-depth NHS guidance.
How long does RSV live in a house?
The virus can survive on surfaces and objects for about 4 to 7 hours (so stock up on your favourite cleaning products) and has an incubation period (the time between infection and symptoms popping up) of about 3 to 5 days.
My go-to RSV treatment plan
For mild cases, and if your doctor’s given you the green light to treat RSV at home, your primary focus will be on comfort.
What to do if someone in your house has RSV
First things first, if you suspect RSV or are concerned about early symptoms, speak to your GP or paediatrician, or call 111 in the UK, to see whether at-home care is appropriate. From there, focus on keeping your child as comfortable as possible, using our tips below.
If severe symptoms come up, your child may need hospital care. Run through our symptom checker below, and call 999 or head to A&E/emergency care if your child seems seriously unwell.
The NHS advises to trust your own judgement as a parent – and we like that guidance – so if you’re worried, follow your instincts and seek help.
Back to RSV treatment at home – here’s your go-to tool kit. Snap and share it to your parenting Whatsapp groups, on social and wherever else your network might find it useful – it takes a village, after all.
1. Prevention tactics
Maybe RSV has hit your household already, and you’re trying to contain it. Or, it’s doing the rounds in childcare settings, nurseries and schools. Either way, the best prevention involves:
- thorough handwashing (dust off your Covid-era technique)
- ensure your kids are up-to-date with their vaccination schedule
- boosting your family’s immune systems with good nutrition tactics (our go-tos as parents on team TRB are child-friendly probiotics, leaning into a vitamin D supplement, and cutting back on sugar intake, where possible)
In the US, a new preventative medication is now recommended by the CDC for babies before or during their first RSV season. Ask your practitioner about Beyfortus (Nirsevimab) – a single dose shot which puts antibodies into the bloodstream, to help fight the virus during exposure, and reduce symptom severity.
2. Ask about meds
If your child’s in discomfort and struggling, your doctor may advise using over-the-counter medications, such as Calpol in the UK or Tylenol in the US – they may also suggest ibuprofen, but do check first. These can help address pain and reduce a fever. You should never give aspirin to a child.
Alongside, nasal saline drops can help relieve a stuffy nose and some cough medications are also suitable for children. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist however, before giving any new medication to your child, and make sure it’s age-appropriate.
You may also be prescribed antibiotics, if there’s a bacterial complication, like bacterial pneumonia.
3. Push the fluids
My kids are fishes, and constantly ask for water. On the other hand, TRB partnership manager Harriet’s toddler is more of a ‘cactus’. Love that one.
Wherever you fall on the fluids spectrum, in times of illness and absolutely across an RSV spike, offer, encourage and sneak as much water and fluids into your kids’ routines as possible. Dehydration can be dangerous, but even on a low level it increases aches, pains and discomfort.
So, while your child’s body might be heating up to fight the virus, it’s important to replace fluids and get them drinking as much as possible. Water is great, and it’s fine to go for well-diluted juice too. Coconut water is fantastic for replacing electrolytes which we naturally lose during illness, too – I add it into smoothies for my kids during sickness.
4. Try lukewarm baths
This one is particularly good for babies, who may be less resistant than toddlers and bigger kids to sitting in a lukewarm bath. If you’re working with a fever, it can really help to soothe and distract.
5. Keep up your baby’s milk feeds
Bigger kids need their water, but for babies, it’s very important to maintain their milk intake as much as possible. Whether you’re breastfeeding or using formula, keep it up across your baby’s sickness – you’re doing an amazing job, and it contains vital nutrients which will support recovery.
6. Create a comfy bedroom
For this, we recommend you:
- keep the room warm and cosy, but not overheated
- use a cool-mist humidifier to ease coughing/congestion
Does steam help RSV?
Less fancy than using a humidifier, natural steam can really help thin out mucus and reduce inflammation. Turn the shower to hot in your bathroom, close the door and sit with your child or baby for a little while – bonus points for getting them to drink a glass of water at the same time, or have a milk feed.
I like to do this just before bedtime, tucked up in pjs with a story. And on that note, stress of any sort won’t help kick RSV – for you or your kids. Lots of cuddles, comfort and taking it slowly are doctor’s orders (from me!)
Is RSV contagious without a fever?
It can take a few days to develop a fever so yes, your child may be contagious even if their temperature is normal. Go for preventative care (thorough hand-washing, the nutrition tips we’ve covered above and taking it easy as a family), if you’re worried about household spread.
When should I take my baby to hospital?
If you see any of these symptoms, do get urgent medical help:
- difficult, shallow or rapid breathing
- skin very hot to touch or sweaty – usually their back or chest
- high fever (in babies under 3 months this would be 38C (100.4F), and aged over 3 months 39C (102.2F) or higher
- using extra muscles to breathe (you may see the skin between their ribs sucking in, or they may seem to be ‘using’ their stomach or shoulders to breathe
- flaring nostrils
- grunting with each breath
- pale/blue lips, mouth or fingertips
- seeming ‘floppy’, lethargic or unresponsive
- dehydration (less frequent weeing, lack of tears when crying and dry nappies are common symptoms)
- increased pain – this can signal a developing sinus or ear infection, or pneumonia
Not sure? Go with caution and seek urgent medical help.