RSV complications: Is my baby at risk?

Most children will be infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) by the age of 2. Usually, babies infected with RSV have symptoms similar to a cold and do not experience serious health problems from the infection. But some babies are at risk of more serious complications that may put them in the hospital, such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis (an infection of the tiny airways in the lungs).

There are a number of factors that increase the risk of serious health problems from RSV:

Premature birth: Babies who are born prematurely (before 36 weeks of pregnancy) are more prone to infections such as RSV because their immune system has not fully developed. As well, their lungs have not been fully formed, so lung infections are more likely to cause breathing problems.

Lung problems: Lung problems are common in babies who are premature, because the lungs have not had a chance to develop fully. But even babies who are not premature can have lung problems (such as cystic fibrosis). The lung damage caused by these conditions makes the baby more vulnerable to RSV complications.

Heart problems: The heart pumps oxygen-filled blood throughout the body. RSV infection makes it harder for the baby to take in oxygen through the lungs. In healthy babies, the heart compensates by pumping harder to supply more oxygen to the body. But for babies with heart problems, the heart may not be able to work hard enough to compensate for the reduced oxygen.

Immune system problems: Babies whose immune systems are not working properly are more prone to serious complications from RSV because their immune system cannot help them fight off the infection.

Here is a quick checklist to help you determine whether your baby may be at risk of serious complications from RSV infection. Babies at higher risk include:

  • premature babies (born before 36 weeks of pregnancy)
  • babies with lung problems
  • babies with heart problems
  • babies whose immune systems are not functioning well (e.g., babies infected with HIV, babies with inherited immune system diseases, babies undergoing transplants or treatments for cancer)

If your baby has any of these risk factors, speak to your doctor about what you can do to reduce your baby's risk of serious health problems related to RSV.

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