Mothers share the ‘terrifying’ experience of hospitalizing a baby with RSV

Baby with RSV in hospital on oxygen, next to photo of smiling mother holding baby

Left: Shanisty Ireland’s two-month-old son, Asa, in hospital with RSV. Right: Ireland holding Asa. (Photos: Shanisty Ireland, Rachel Jacobus)

Mother Sarah Driscoll first thought her 6-week-old daughter Charley had a cold. It wasn’t until her baby’s symptoms took a dramatic turn that Driscoll began to suspect her baby had RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) — a common, contagious airborne virus currently surfacing in the US.

At first, “she was very constipated and coughing,” Driscoll, who lives in Massachusetts, tells Yahoo Life. But then her baby’s cough started getting more intense, to the point where Driscoll felt like she had to hold Charley up all the time. “It was almost like she was choking on whatever was in her throat,” she says. “I felt like she was gasping for breath at times.”

Driscoll felt helpless from Charley’s labored breathing. “It was terrifying,” she says, adding, “She’s my first and only.”

Driscoll had heard about RSV on social media and said, “It was my biggest fear.” While she didn’t know of any other kids who had RSV at the time, Driscoll shares that “something in my gut told me my kid is going to get this.”

And she was right. Concerned about her baby’s labored breathing, Driscoll took Charley to the emergency room and they immediately admitted her. Driscoll was told that if she had put Charley to bed that night instead of going to the emergency room, “we wouldn’t have had her in the morning.”

Driscoll’s baby was hospitalized for a week, including several nights in ICU, and required oxygen. “She was on a feeding tube because they didn’t want her to choke,” says Driscoll. “They had to aspirate her lungs several times.” She adds, “It was agony to watch her.”

Charley made a full recovery, but Driscoll says she will reflect on her baby’s health anxiety with RSV for years to come. “It’s something that traumatized me,” she says.

Baby hospitalized with RSV, wrapped in blankets with a purple pacifier

Sarah Driscoll’s 6 week old baby Charley was hospitalized with RSV. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Driscoll)

Mum-of-five Shanisty Ireland had a similarly scary experience with her two-month-old baby Asa after what appeared to be a cold turned out to be RSV. Ireland tells Yahoo Life that the progression from a common cold to more severe symptoms was “extremely” fast.

After a normal day of shopping with her family, Ireland went for a 30-minute jog while her husband was home with the kids. In that short time, their baby Asa “went from having a cold to — boom! – we pack up and go to the children’s hospital, ”she says. “It went very fast.”

Ireland had the peace of mind to take a video of her baby Asa’s wheezing and send it to her sister-in-law, who is a pediatric nurse. “She just told me not to even go back to the pediatrician — go straight to the hospital,” says Ireland, who lives in Ohio. “I credit her for saving Asa.”

It also helped that Ireland and her husband had dealt with RSV before, so they knew what signs to watch for. Their eldest child Adam, now 6, had RSV when he was two months old – the same age as Asa – and had to be rushed to the emergency room because he was “seriously ill,” says Ireland.

After five days in hospital, Asa began to recover and Ireland was able to take him home.

Family of five in neutral colors standing close together and smiling with green in the background

Ireland with her husband and five children, including baby Asa and her eldest son Adam – both of whom had RSV when they were 2 months old. (Photo: Rachel Jacobus)

What are the symptoms of RSV to watch for?

Given that an unprecedented surge of RSV is happening, it’s important to know the symptoms, especially in small children, as the infection can progress to respiratory distress, said Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association and a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California (the same county that recently declared a health emergency due to RSV and the flu.) “Little babies and small children are walking always risk and warning signs are always important to look for,” he says.

RSV can appear just like a common cold, namely “runny nose, loss of appetite, a little cough, a little sneezing, and a fever,” El-Hasan tells Yahoo Life. “But it can cause breathing problems such as wheezing, especially in small children, the elderly and anyone prone to chronic disease.”

Passive smoking in the home also makes things worse. Research shows that infants and young children are at higher risk of hospitalization for RSV, and that it increases the severity of the disease. By smoking, “you’re not just hurting yourself — you’re hurting everyone in the house,” says El-Hasan.

How is RSV treated?

Most RSV infections clear up on their own within one to two weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and can be treated with pediatric acetaminophen for fever. If a child is wheezing, the doctor may prescribe albuterol, an inhaler also used to treat asthma, or they may prescribe steroids, says El-Hasan.

However, in some cases — such as with Ireland and Driscoll’s babies — RSV can cause serious infections, leading to bronchiolitis and pneumonia, according to the CDC. In fact, RSV is the most common cause of both bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children under 1 year of age. Although uncommon, RSV can be fatal in some cases. According to the CDC, there are up to 500 RSV-associated deaths in children under age 5 each year.

‘You know your child better than anyone else’

Both Ireland and Driscoll urge parents not to doubt themselves when their children are sick and to follow their instincts. “Even if your doctor tells you that your child is fine, you know your child better than anyone else,” says Driscoll. “So get a second opinion.”

El-Hasan agrees, suggesting to parents: “If you think something is wrong with your child or something just doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts – at least call someone and ask. I find that very important.”

But if symptoms get worse, Ireland says “don’t be afraid” to go straight to the emergency room. “If breathing gets harder, it’s better to err on the side of caution,” she says. “If they’re really struggling to breathe, don’t have a wet diaper, and their lips turn blue, there’s no reason to wait because it could be dangerous.”

Driscoll and Ireland also encourage parents to set boundaries with others, including family members, to protect their children’s health, especially during cold and flu season. “If you don’t like people who had colds coming to your house last week, you can say, ‘Maybe it’s better to come another time or in the spring when we’re past all this sickness’,” says Ireland. “Many women, especially mothers, don’t want to say no, but we have every right to advocate for our child’s well-being.”

El-Hasan says that since RSV is spread through both air and contact, regular hand washing is important. “If you’re sick, don’t kiss other people,” he adds. “Maybe the fist punch and hand shake is the best way to go. If you are going to touch your face, wash your hands before and after.”

As parents, Ireland says, “We have no control over how or when our children get sick, especially when you have other children. We can’t live in a bubble… The only thing we have control over as parents are the actions we take when they to do become ill.”

For Ireland and Driscoll, their scary experiences with respiratory illness have inspired them to continue talking to other parents about the symptoms of RSV to raise awareness. “It can literally happen to anyone,” says Ireland. “It can affect any household.”

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