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Beating a Fall Bug

Autumn brings many things  -- cooler weather, pumpkins, and the official kickoff of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) season. You may not have heard of this bug, but nearly all children are infected with it at least once before they're 2 years old. RSV can be dangerous: About 125,000 U.S. children are hospitalized each year with the illness, and, tragically, almost 500 of them die. Here's what you need to know to help protect your baby.

Know the facts. RSV, which causes an infection in the lungs, occurs most often from late fall to early spring. It's highly contagious  -- the virus can live for several hours on countertops, tables, or unwashed hands  -- and can be spread through contact with an infected person or by touching a contaminated surface and then wiping one's eyes or nose. Preemies (babies born before 37 weeks) are at higher risk because their immature lungs are more susceptible to complications, such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis, which causes swelling of the tiny airways in the lungs (the bronchioles) that can affect breathing. All babies under 6 weeks and those with chronic health conditions are also at increased risk.

Watch for signs. For most babies, an RSV infection resembles a common cold. Symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, mild cough, vomiting, and a low fever (under 101°F). Call your pediatrician if you spot signs of a more serious infection  -- poor appetite, restlessness, and a higher fever (or any fever in a baby under 3 months).

Parents should also be on the lookout for bronchiolitis  -- marked by a cough and difficulty breathing  -- which is often caused by RSV. Call the doctor right away if your baby has trouble breathing, is wheezing, has a blue tint around her lips or nails, has a hard time swallowing, or becomes dehydrated (signs include dry mouth, a lack of tears, and less frequent urination).

Soothe the symptoms. Most RSV infections are mild and disappear within a week or two. Treat the illness the way you would a cold: Relieve congestion by using a nasal aspirator, saline nose drops, and a humidifier. Continue to nurse or bottle-feed  -- be aware that your baby may feed more slowly. A pain reliever such as infant acetaminophen can soothe a fever. If your baby has a severe case of RSV, your doctor may want to measure her blood levels of oxygen or prescribe medication.

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