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How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and RSV in Your Child

The weather is cooling down around here, which means it’s the start of cold and flu season again. However, particularly if you have young children, there is another virus to be aware of that can cause cold-like symptoms: RSV.

RSV is a common virus that usually affects the nose, throat, and lungs. RSV stands for the respiratory syncytial virus. If you have a child in daycare, chances are, you’ve heard of RSV. The CDC estimates that almost all children will have had RSV by the time they turn two years old. It spreads through the air just like a cold virus: coughing, sneezing, and touching are all culprits.

For most children over the age of two and adults, RSV is no big deal – it usually manifests as looking like a bad cold. It can often be considerably more concerning for babies and young toddlers, mainly if they were born prematurely.

Common Signs and Symptoms of RSV

  • Common cold symptoms like a cough, fever, headache, and sore or scratchy throat
  • Runny nose that’s very mucusy; mucus is usually yellow, green, or gray in appearance
  • A whistling or wheezing noise when they breathe
  • Redness of the eyes

The hard part, particularly with the youngest children, is that you can’t get an accurate history from them. How does a baby tell you they have a scratchy throat or can’t breathe through their nose? In babies, watch for signs like refusing to breastfeed or bottle-feed, signs of dehydration like dry diapers after six hours, no tears when crying, or being unusually upset or inactive.

Bronchiolitis, which can cause coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, can often develop due to RSV. When your physician listens to your child’s lungs, if they have RSV and bronchiolitis, it sounds like Rice Krispies – lots of crackling.

So how do you tell if it’s a cold or RSV? Quite simply, at home, you can’t. A healthcare practitioner can run a test to determine if it’s a cold or RSV. If your child is under six months of age or at high risk for severe illness from RSV, talk to your child’s doctor at the first sign of symptoms.

Because RSV is a virus, there’s no effective treatment for otherwise healthy children and adults other than supportive care of other symptoms. Nasal saline and suctioning out the mucus from the nose are the most effective and essential treatments for dealing with runny noses and related symptoms for RSV in small children. A cool-mist humidifier can also keep your baby comfortable while they sleep. If your child has a history of asthma and wheezing, often they could be prescribed an albuterol inhaler or breathing treatment with albuterol. Sometimes, they may also receive a prescription for a steroid, such as a dexamethasone, a standard for upper respiratory conditions. Other tips are to keep surfaces clean and disinfected and wash your hands often.

If your child is 5 years old or younger and you’re concerned about RSV symptoms, we can conduct a test to help you find out if your child is suffering from RSV or just a bad cold. Schedule your child’s appointment at First Care Urgent Care by going to