The start of autumn brings with it a wave of seasonal viruses. While parents know of the threats of common seasonal viruses, such as the cold or flu, many are unaware of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a highly contagious and seasonal virus contracted by nearly all infants by the age of 2. RSV is the number one cause of hospitalizations during a baby’s first year of life, and causes approximately 200 infant deaths in the US each year.
RSV can present symptoms similar to the common cold or flu, yet may develop into a much more serious infection among high-risk populations, including premature infants.
Jennifer Degl’s daughter was a high-risk infant, born at 23 weeks as a micro preemie. Jennifer dealt with the threats of severe RSV disease first-hand. She shares her experience and advice for all parents on how to keep their babies healthy and safe from potentially contracting severe RSV disease.
Given that Joy was a micro preemie at birth, what were your biggest concerns regarding her health and how did RSV factor into these concerns?
Jennifer: Wow - where do I start? My daughter was born at 23 weeks gestation, so we were in a constant state of fear.
At first, we were not sure that my daughter, Joy, would survive. Joy weighed 1 pound and 4 ounces at birth and was not even as long as a ruler at 11 3/4 inches.
As she began to grow and reached about 30 weeks, we learned about the dangers of RSV and the effects it can have on premature babies. When we finally allowed ourselves to think about her homecoming, we started to research ways to keep her healthy once we didn't have that safety net of the hospital staff.
Did you have any previous experience with RSV or severe RSV prior to Joy’s birth?
Jennifer: My friend's son had RSV when he was about 1-month-old. He was born a full-term baby, but RSV still caused him to stay in the hospital for about two weeks. RSV didn’t come across my radar, again, until we were planning Joy's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) discharge.
What signs and symptoms did you look out for to ensure Joy stayed healthy and did not contract severe RSV disease?
Jennifer: We were lucky enough to have a visiting nurse come to our home three times a week during RSV season. My husband and I were also trained to look for symptoms that would indicate she was struggling to breathe, such as the retracting of the skin around the ribs during breathing and listening for a slight whistle and wheeze during breaths. Signs that other parents can look out for include:
- Coughing or wheezing that does not stop
- Fast or troubled breathing
- Spread-out nostrils and/or a caved-in chest when trying to breathe
- Bluish color around the mouth or fingernails
- Fever (especially if it is over 100.4°F [rectal])
What proactive steps did you take to protect Joy from contracting severe RSV disease? Do you have any prevention tips you can offer other parents to protect their children?
Jennifer: We took a lot of different precautions to do our best to ensure Joy did not get RSV. Joy had three older brothers at home (ages 3, 5 and 7 at the time) and we certainly couldn't make them move out for RSV season. They always had to wash their hands and change their clothes as soon as they came home from school. If one of the boys was sick, we would quarantine Joy to her room and try to keep her safe and entertained there so that our other kids didn't feel ignored while they were sick. We also washed and sanitized our hands, doorknobs, remote controls and other frequently touched surfaces several times a day.
Some other precautions included not allowing many friends and family members to visit Joy in our home for the first few months of her life. While every parent wants to show off their baby to loved ones, unfortunately, it's not safe for a micro preemie until their lungs have fully developed.
Joy also had some interventions and services at our home after her NICU discharge, and I had to continue to remind the therapists to wash their hands when they entered my home, and to allow me to sanitize any manipulatives or toys they were using before giving them to Joy. I also had to continuously remind them to cancel the appointments if they were feeling sick in any way. These were important conversations to have to keep Joy protected against severe RSV.
Thankfully, Joy did not contract severe RSV disease but this is not the case for all babies. What advice would you offer parents who are concerned that their baby may be at high risk for RSV?
Jennifer: I think the best advice for parents who are worrying about their baby getting severe RSV is to try to keep the germs away from your baby as best you can. Keep washing and sanitizing your hands and other shared household surfaces and ask anyone who will be near your baby to do the same.
Keep having the uncomfortable conversations with family and friends. Let them know that as much as you want them to see your baby, it’s best to wait until the baby can safely be around small groups and crowds. You are your baby's best advocate and no one else will look out for your baby's wellbeing the way you can.
Also, speak to your baby's pediatrician to find out if your child is at high risk for severe RSV. You can also visit LittleLungs.com for more information on RSV protection and tips.