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Is It a Cold, or RSV?

You probably never heard of this illness before you became a parent, but if your baby catches it, you may never forget it. Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is the most common lower respiratory infection in infants, and the most common reason for hospitalization in the first year. And unfortunately, now through early April is prime RSV season. For most kids who catch the virus, it's just a bad cold. But for a particularly vulnerable group it can be much worse, says Gail Demmler, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. Here's what you need to know:

Who's most at risk Premature infants and babies with congenital lung or heart disease. A preventive medication, Synagis, is often given to high-risk babies during RSV season; ask your pediatrician about it.

Symptoms RSV may seem like a cold at first, with a fever and a runny nose. Symptoms may worsen and include severe congestion, coughing so hard it interferes with breathing and eating, wheezing, and rapid breathing.

When to call the doctor When a baby younger than 6 months or at high risk for RSV catches a cold, or when an older baby develops a cold that rapidly gets worse.

Treatment For less extreme cases of RSV, ease congestion with a humidifier, saline nose drops, and a nasal aspirator. Your doctor may also prescribe a bronchodilator  -- a drug that opens up the breathing tubes. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary so your baby can get support from a breathing machine until the infection clears.