RSV: Warning over winter virus which can leave children with breathing difficulties

By Laurie Churchman
DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Parents of young children have been urged to stay alert for signs of a common winter illness in children after a charity warned there could be a surge in cases.

The British Lung Foundation (BLF) said respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is “rife” due to lowered immunity in the population.

Cases of the condition usually peak in January, but there were few infections last year when lockdowns were in place. The charity said it was concerned children will have “much lower immunity” this year, when the NHS is already under extreme pressure.

It said a surge in cases could also coincide with large numbers of Covid-19 infections.

The BLF has seen a 400 per cent rise in calls to its helpline from parents worried about their child having breathing difficulties.

RSV is common in babies and children, and almost all children will have had it by the time they are two years old.

The virus may cause a cough or cold. But for some it can lead to bronchiolitis – an inflammatory infection of the lower airways which can make it hard to breathe.

The early symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to those of a common cold but can develop over a few days into a high temperature, a dry and persistent cough, difficulty feeding, and wheezing.

While many cases clear up in two to three weeks, a number of children need hospital admission. Over the past three months an estimated 1,000 children have needed hospital care in England alone, the BLF said.

The charity has issued new guidance for parents. People with coughs or colds should stay away from young children, regular hand washing is important – and so is not smoking around young children and babies.

Dr Andy Whittamore, clinical lead at the British Lung Foundation, said: “In general practice, we are seeing a lot of children with coughs and viruses that weren’t circulating last year and so their immunity is lowered.

“Doctors on the ground are concerned that alongside a rapid increase in cases of Covid-19, we are also going to see a surge in diseases like bronchiolitis.”

He explained RSV starts with a blocked or runny nose and can progress to cause a cough, fever and sometimes breathing difficulties.

“The good news is that for most children it will be mild and will clear in a few days without any treatment,” he said.

While a cough may continue for a few weeks, it is extremely rare for a healthy child to die of bronchiolitis, he explained. Some will need medical help, although this is still unusual.

“Some babies do develop severe symptoms with the RSV virus, and warning signs to look out for include if they refuse to feed, are becoming very breathless or if they are breathing in a shallow or irregular way,” he said.

If you are worried about your child having RSV, you can speak to your doctor or call the BLF’s helpline on 03000 030 555. You can find out more on the charity’s website.

Additional reporting by PA


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