Premature Babies and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

RSV and Your Preemie

Premature infant being held
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Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, is a common viral illness that results in symptoms similar to a cold in adults and older children in good health. Much like the flu, RSV is a seasonal illness that typically hits during the winter months, starting in fall and ending in the spring. By the age of two years old, most children will have been infected with the RSV virus and generally recover within two weeks.

However, for babies that are in certain high-risk groups, this virus can cause serious complications. For premature babies or those with underlying health conditions, RSV can be especially serious.

What Is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial virus (RSV) is a very common viral illness that can result in symptoms much like those of the common cold. The virus causes infection of the lungs and respiratory tract and symptoms can usually be treated with ordinary self-care measures. Most children experience this virus before the age of two, as it is highly contagious among young children. Adults and older children can also become infected with RSV. In those who are healthy, the virus usually runs its course within one to two weeks without complications.

While RSV does mimic the common cold and most people recover fully with a two week period, the virus can cause serious lung infections which may require hospitalization in premature babies, or in infants who have conditions such as heart or lung problems.

While the RSV virus is always present, the peak season for outbreaks of the illness is during the winter months. Even after recovery from the virus, children and infants may still be able to spread the disease for one to three weeks after. The elderly, older adults with lung or heart diseases and people with compromised immune systems are also at a higher risk of developing complications from respiratory syncytial virus.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of RSV typically begin to develop about 4 to 6 days after becoming infected with the virus. RSV can cause symptoms such as coughing or wheezing , sneezing, fast or labored breathing, a bluish hue of the mouth and fingernails, gasping for breath, a fever (which could be higher than 104 degrees in babies under 3 months of age), caved-in chest when breathing, and flaring of nostrils while breathing. If any of these signs and symptoms are present, contact your child's healthcare provider immediately.

How RSV is Spread

RSV can spread very rapidly. RSV passes from person to person like a cold virus when someone with RSV coughs or sneezes, droplets travel through the air to others nearby or land on surfaces that others will touch. It can enter your body when you touch your eyes or nose after touching RSV germs. RSV transmission may be prevented by frequent hand washing by parents and healthcare providers, isolating infants from people with upper respiratory infections, and avoiding crowds during the RSV season.

Sources of RSV

Many cases of RSV develop from exposure to the virus in school or daycare settings. If your older children attend school or daycare it is especially important to make sure practices such as proper hand washing and disinfection of surfaces are in place at home.

It is important to be proactive in keeping your baby safe after NICU discharge. You can do so by educating your friends and family on the importance of handwashing as well as the reasons for limiting visitation during the RSV season.


RSV can be spread through coughing, sneezing, or touching. By taking the following precautions, you can help minimize the risk of your preemie developing RSV. Before you or anyone else handles the baby, make sure they thoroughly wash their hands. Do not allow smoking in the home or car, and don't allow smoking near your baby. Washing the baby's bedding, clothes, and toys also helps to minimize the risk of RSV infection.

Avoid crowds of people, people who are sick, and young children (if possible) during the winter months to minimize exposure to respiratory syncytial virus.

To learn more about RSV and your preemie read: "Why Preemies are at an Increased Risk for RSV."


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