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Is it a common cold or a respiratory virus?

By Gregory Bergner, M.D. 

Colds are contagious viral infections of the nose and throat, causing congestion, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, mild fever, and headache. Cold symptoms tend to go away within two weeks, with or without treatment.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) acts and sounds like the common cold at first, with symptoms such as a fever and runny nose, but can cause severe symptoms in infants, young children, and older adults. While most people recover from an RSV infection in one to two weeks, the virus is the most common cause of wheezing and pneumonia in American children younger than 12 months of age, and is the leading cause of infant hospitalizations for bronchiolitis in the U.S.

An infant’s chest wall is not well developed, and it lacks the stiffness required to cough up the mucus caused by RSV. A baby’s smaller airways are at higher risk for plugging and inflammation, thereby putting young children at a greater risk of needing additional intervention if infected with RSV.

RSV is a virus rather than a bacterial infection; it therefore cannot be treated with antibiotics. If your child becomes infected, experts recommend using a vaporizer during cold months to moisten dry air. Giving your child a nonaspirin pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, and plenty of fluids is also helpful.

Children may need treatment if they show any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or fast breathing
  • Excessive wheezing
  • Gray or blue skin color
  • High fever
  • Thick nasal discharge that is yellow, green, or gray
  • Worsening cough
  • Extreme tiredness (especially during times they are normally active)

Need a physician? If your child is ill and you need to establish a primary care physician, our physician directory will guide you toward the right health professional for your family.