What you need to know

  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes infection of the lungs and respiratory tracts.
  • RSV is a common cause of colds for young tamariki, especially during the winter and spring months.
  • For pēpi and infants, RSV can cause serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
  • If you are concerned about your pēpi you can contact PlunketLine or consult with your family doctor or Practice Nurse.

Winter is a great time for chasing leaves and jumping in puddles. It can also be a stressful time for tamariki and their whānau, with continuous rounds of sneezing, coughs and runny noses. Tamariki are spending more time indoors and around other tamariki, making them more likely to pick up bugs and illnesses. Inevitably, they can end up sharing their bugs along with their toys.

Winter coughs and sneezes also bring greater exposure to the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common cause of colds, although, most of us haven’t heard of it.

Watch our livestream where we discuss what RSV is, symptoms your tamariki may have, what you can do, when you may need to seek further assistance from a doctor, and ways to (hopefully) prevent exposure.

What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes infection in the lungs and respiratory tracts, a common cause of colds.

Most tamariki would have been exposed to RSV by the time they are 2 years old, giving them a chance to build up their immunity. This is especially common during winter and spring months.

In older children, RSV symptoms are mild and similar to a common cold. However, for pēpi the virus can cause serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia and they can become increasingly unwell very quickly.

Tamariki with bronchiolitis may wheeze and breathe faster to try and catch their breath. For pēpi, because of their much smaller airways, they can be seriously affected by bronchiolitis.

The virus often spreads at day care and early childhood centres where tamariki can bring it home to other tamariki at home, including vulnerable pēpi.

 

COVID-19 Impacts

COVID-19 public health interventions meant closures to New Zealand’s borders, lockdowns and other precautions such as regular hand sanitisation, mask wearing, and social distancing since March 2020. Due to this New Zealand saw a decrease in RSV related illnesses last year, even through the winter and spring months.

This means more tamariki this year are without immunity and being exposed to RSV for the first time.

This makes our young pēpi especially vulnerable to RSV.

Preventing exposure to RSV

Simple precautions can be taken, much like we do for COVID-19;

  • careful and frequent handwashing,
  • social distancing, especially from people who are sick (talk to your friends and whānau before visiting)
  • covering coughs and sneezes (or teaching little ones to sneeze into their elbows),
  • keeping you house warm and dry,
  • having a smokefree environment, and
  • keeping sick children home from day care and early childhood education centres (this will help to limit the spread)

If you are concerned about your pēpi or tamariki, PlunketLine is available 24/7 on 0800 933 922, or consult your GP or Practice Nurse.

FAQs

Frequently asked questions  
What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

RSV is a virus that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract, a common cause of cold for children and adults.

Most tamariki would have been exposed to RSV by the time they are 2, giving them a chance to build up their immunity.
Is RSV more harmful to babies?

In older tamariki, RSV symptoms are mild and similar to a common cold. However, for pēpi the virus can cause serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia and they can become increasingly unwell very quickly.

For micro-premature and premature babies, and children with compromised immunity, take extra precautions to avoid coming in contact with RSV and keep an extra close eye on their symptoms.
Why is it big on the news? COVID-19 precautions last year meant we saw a decrease in RSV related colds; however, this also means this year more tamariki are without immunity and being exposed to RSV for the first time.
What symptoms should I look out for?

RSV is a common cause for most colds in New Zealand. Symptoms include coughing, fever (higher than 38 degrees Celsius), runny nose, headaches.

For pēpi the virus can cause serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia and they can become increasingly unwell very quickly. Symptoms for these illnesses can include high fever (more than 39 degrees Celsius), wheezing, severe cough, trouble breathing (faster breathing and working extra hard to catch their breath). For young pēpi, they may not want to drink milk as they may be struggling to breathe.

If you are concerned, consult with your doctor. If you child has severe symptoms, especially if they are having difficulty breathing take them to a hospital

How is RSV treated?

Treatment of RSV depends on the severity of the symptoms your tamariki is displaying. Most cases of RSV are mild and don't need medical treatment from doctors. However, an RSV related infection can be more serious for babies. Some might need treatment in a hospital as they need to be watched closely, have plenty of their normal milk/fluids, if needed, and treatment for any breathing problems.

Antibiotics aren't used because RSV is a virus and antibiotics work only against bacteria, but sometimes, doctors give medicine to help open up the airways.
When can I give my baby paracetamol?

RSV infections usually go away after 1-2 weeks. Mild and cold-like symptoms should be manageable. For fevers and pain, you can use paracetamol, however, always consult your doctor before doing so. For young babies (under 3 months old) paracetamol needs to be prescribed by a doctor.

It is a really good idea to talk to a health professional before giving your child any medicine, and that includes cough medicine (which is not recommended for any tamariki under the age of 6).

When should I take my child to the doctor?

If you are concerned about your child’s symptoms or your child is displaying severe symptoms such as high fever (more than 39 degrees Celsius), wheezing, severe cough or if they are struggling to breathe (faster breathing and working extra hard to catch their breath), take them to the hospital. For young pēpi, they may not want to drink milk as they may be struggling to breathe.

How does it affect pregnant women and babies in utero? We reached out to Dr Emma Best, Paediatrician, to answer this question. She has said ”There are no known fatal effects from maternal infection with RSV in pregnancy. In most adults it causes a common cold-type illness (or no illness). It is not like influenza with known worse outcomes in pregnancy. Like other viruses, the protection pregnant women create against RSV is important in protecting the newborn baby in the first month or so of life."          
What can I do to protect my child from exposure?

Simple precautions can be taken, much like we do for COVID-19;

  • careful and frequent handwashing,
  • social distancing, especially from people who are sick (talk to your friends and whānau before visiting),
  • covering coughs and sneezes (or teaching little ones to sneeze into their elbows),
  • keeping you house warm and dry,
  • having a smokefree environment, and
  • keeping sick children home from day care/school (this will help to limit the spread)
Where can I find more information? 

As well as this RSV information page, we also have information on our website about bronchiolitis and pneumonia. You can follow the links or simply search on our site.

You can also access information on other websites, which we've added links to below.

Understanding Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ

Visit Website

New Zealand’s not-for-profit sector authority on all respiratory conditions.

Bronchiolitis

KidsHealth

Visit Website

Accurate and reliable information about children's health.

Need free support or advice?

Call PlunketLine 24/7 on 0800 933 922