RSV descends on us every year as the weather cools. RSV is so common that nearly all U.S. children become infected with it by the time they are 2. The infection starts out like a typical cold that involves a runny nose and a cough that eventually goes away.

But nearly 75,000 to 125,000 children have worsened symptoms and end up hospitalized each year.

Dr. Janie Chai, an Asian female physician, smiles for a photo.
Dr. Janie Chai

Around the world, RSV affects an estimated 64 million people and is responsible for 160,000 deaths each year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

So what should parents know about this highly contagious infection? We asked Dr. Janie Chai, a pediatrician at Novant Health Pediatrics SouthPark to answer some common questions.

What is RSV and when is it serious?

This infection becomes an issue every year, especially during the colder months, among younger children and sometimes older adults. The virus typically shows up as a cold (think runny nose, coughs and a fever), but Chai said parents should start to get concerned if the infection is causing wheezing, difficulty breathing and other forms of respiratory distress.

Who is at risk of getting RSV?

Regardless of age, anyone can be infected by the RSV virus. Children usually recover from the infection on their own. Premature infants, infants younger than six months, children with chronic lung or heart disease, children with neuromuscular disorders that make it difficult to swallow or clear mucus and children with weakened immune systems are most at risk.

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Children, older people, and those with lung conditions are at a higher risk of complications due to RSV. If you have RSV symptoms or are immunocompromised, masking is a good option to protect yourself and others when you go out in public.

What can parents do to protect their kids?

“I tell my parents to not go to public places like playgrounds around flu season, and I recommend that they wash their hands and cover their coughs and sneezes,” said Chai. Remember, cough and sneeze into the fold of your arm, not your hands. That’s how germs get spread.

While there are no medications to treat the virus itself, babies that end up getting hospitalized are usually given supplemental oxygen to make breathing easier. There's also no vaccine at this point.

One reason the virus is lesser known than the flu is because there’s not much you can do to avoid the infection. Unlike the flu, there isn’t a routine vaccination for RSV. When your kids do get RSV, don’t panic, Chai said.

“Some parents get really worked up about RSV and they sometimes assume that their child will be among those that get hospitalized,” said Chai.

Bottom line: If you’re concerned, call your provider. And remember, handwashing goes a long ways toward prevention.