Adults and older children are better equipped to fight off RSV, but when it comes to newborns and infants, it's a matter of life and death.
Of late and more frequently, there has been news of infants and babies passing away after being kissed by others. While it may seem confusing and unbelievable that a gesture of love like that can be life-threatening, doctors have in fact started warning people to refrain from kissing babies especially during this time of the year. And they've got good reason for it. As winter starts to settle in, so does the flu and cold season, making it a difficult time for adults and children alike.
While those with strong immune systems can handle the common cold or Respiratory Syncytial Virus, whose symptoms are mild and typically mimic the common cold, according to Mayo Clinic, babies cannot. And when they get affected by RSV, it can be devastating for them.
According to Medline Plus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract that leads to mild, cold-like symptoms in adults and older healthy children. However, it can be more serious in young babies, especially those in certain high-risk groups.
RSV is highly contagious and can be transmitted to another person when the infected:
- sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near someone
- touches, kisses, or shakes hands with someone
It can also transfer to another person if they have touched something contaminated by the virus and then touched their own nose, eyes or mouth after.
Considering the ways in which this illness can be transferred, even the slightest peck on the skin of a baby can transmit the disease to them. While your own symptoms might be mild enough to be considered harmless, it's potentially life-threatening for the baby, especially as there is no cure for it either.
Very young infants may show symptoms such as irritability, lack of activity, reduced appetite, apnea, or pausing for breath while sleeping, states Medical News Today, the last possibly being the most harmful for them. And it's even more of a risk for those born pre-term, are under the age of six months, are under two years with lung, heart, or neuromuscular problems or have a weakened immune system. While the medical site also states that most children under the age of two experience RSV and survive it, it's still a risk.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that while most people infected with RSV are contagious for three to eight days, infants can continue to spread the virus for as long as four weeks even if they stop showing symptoms. And around 100-500 children under the age of five die due to this disease annually.
According to Mayo Clinic, the following are the ways to reduce the risk of your infant from catching it:
- Wash your hands frequently. Even instilling a habit in other children of washing their hands can help.
- Avoid the infant's exposure to others, especially to those who are suffering from fevers or colds. This is especially important if your baby is premature and during any baby's first two months of life. Keep passing the baby around to a minimum.
- Keep the surroundings clean. Discard any used tissues right away as the virus can remain active for five to six hours on a tissue.
- Avoid sharing your drinking glasses with others, especially when you have to handle your infant.
- Keep any and all toys given to your infant clean and sterilized.
For infants with weak immune systems or who are under six months old, suffering from RSV could mean immediate hospitalization. And it can be extremely difficult for parents to watch their babies unable to fight it off. According to mother Caitlin Henderson, when her 6-week-old daughter was diagnosed with it, it was heartbreaking for her.
In her recounting of the situation to Her View From Home, she said, "I sat on the cold plastic couch as my husband held my shuddering body tightly in his arms. Our 6-week-old daughter didn’t even fight the doctors who were trying to get her quickly settled into the PICU. The IVs, the feeding tube, the CPAP, and every other medical tool that was being strapped to her body elicited no response from her. What 24 hours earlier had just been a cough had turned into our baby’s body close to giving up the fight against RSV."
"I will never forget the words from our nurse as we were preparing to be released from the hospital. 'I’m so glad to see you going home. You don’t know how close her body was to shutting down.' And our baby did make a full recovery, thankfully, but there are many who don’t. There are many parents who have to walk out those doors without their babies. There are too many babies lost every winter from one deadly kiss," she continued.
Her advice to other people is, "A virus that presents like a common cold in adults can be deadly for infants. Walk into any PICU in the winter months, and you are sure to find cribs full of coughing infants fighting just to breathe. It’s a ruthless virus that doesn’t even peak in its severity until around day five. What is even scarier is that adults are normally contagious before they ever show symptoms. So while it might be incredibly hard to resist a smooch on that adorable little baby, I beg you to reconsider. And if you just can’t resist, the back of the head is the safest spot to minimize their chances of catching the virus."
So this season, ensure that those close to you know these risks and to avoid kissing newborns and infants. After all, keeping that kiss to yourself could possibly save a life.