ANKENY, Iowa — You’ve probably already seen it on social media this holiday season, parents posting the words “don’t kiss the baby.” While it may seem a bit harsh, metro doctors say there’s a serious reason as to why you shouldn’t.
Each year an estimated 57,000 children younger than five-years-old in the United States are hospitalized due to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
MercyOne pediatric clinics in the Des Moines metro are already seeing a small handful of RSV cases in young children this winter, and pediatricians say the peak season isn’t even here yet.
RSV is a common, very contagious virus that affects our respiratory system. For adults, it usually feels like a minor cold, but for young children, especially infants under six-months-old, it can become serious and even life-threatening.
“That’s why you will see all those posts about ‘don’t kiss the babies’ because we want to make sure they don’t get sick,” Dr. Candace Bass with MercyOne Pediatric Clinic in Ankeny said. “They are so vulnerable and susceptible to illnesses. With really young infants, if they get RSV, sometimes they can even have apnea where they stop breathing and they are more likely to end up hospitalized for RSV.”
There is not a vaccine to prevent RSV like there is for the flu and there’s no medicine to treat it once contracted. Dr. Bass said symptomatic treatment like suctioning out the nose and providing saline is all doctors can really do to try and make their young patients comfortable.
So far in the state of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) is recording just 44 cases of RSV this season, but Dr. Bass said late December into January is when we see those numbers really spike. That’s why it’s important to practice baby etiquette like washing your hands before handling and not kissing the babies now.
“Trying to prevent the illness before it can start is the most important thing because unfortunately there isn’t any medicine you can give to just make RSV go away,” Dr. Bass said. “It’s just about treating the symptoms and making them feel better so if we can try to avoid that we’d really like to.”
It’s especially important to not interact with babies when you are sick, but Dr. Bass said there’s that incubation period of sickness too, where you may have the virus and are contagious but not show symptoms yet. That’s why it’s important to be extra cautious.
Symptoms for RSV include wheezing, difficulty breathing, runny nose and congestion, as well as a fever.
“It’s really rough sometimes. It’s hard for the babies to eat because they are so congested and you know they are wheezing,” Dr. Bass said. “You can tell they are uncomfortable and they are just really sad too. There isn’t an antibiotic that you can take. It’s more about symptomatic treatment.”
Not kissing the baby is important for other illnesses beyond RSV, too.
“It’s not just RSV or the flu, some people may have cold sores or the herpes virus and might not know that they are going to have an outbreak soon,” Dr. Bass said. “They might kiss the baby and then the baby gets the herpes virus and that can actually cause an infection of the lining around the brain and meningitis. It’s actually very serious.”