It has all the symptoms of a "common cold": sneezing, coughing and having a runny nose. But respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, can be a lot more serious for some children.

That's especially true for premature infants, young children with congenital heart or chronic lung diseases like asthma or children who have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition, said Dr. Nirmla Verma, a pediatrician at Cook County Health & Hospitals System's Austin Health Center and Logan Square Health Center.

"RSV is a highly contagious virus, and most children will get it at least once before they're two years old," said Dr. Verma, who has been a pediatrician for 13 years. "For most children, RSV goes away within one or two weeks on its own, with nothing more severe than some coughing and sneezing. But in more serious cases, RSV can cause respiratory distress for the child."

Among children younger than 1 year of age, RSV is the leading cause for bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.

RSV is most common in fall, winter and spring. People of any age can get a RSV infection, but infections later in life are often less severe.

"To protect your child against getting RSV, it's important that you wash your hands often with soap and water and make sure your children do, too. As much as possible, you should also avoid close contact with sick people, especially if your child is at high risk of developing severe RSV disease," Dr. Verma said.

RSV can also stay on hard surfaces for a long time, which is why parents should clean and disinfect surfaces whenever possible.

"One thing that won't help is taking antibiotics. RSV is a virus, not a bacteria. So antibiotics will have no effect on fighting your RSV or your child," Dr. Verma said.

So how can you tell if your child has just a common cold, or RSV?

Dr. Verma said you should seek treatment if your child has symptoms like great difficulty or fast breathing, blue or gray skin color, high fever, worsening cough or extreme tiredness, particularly during times they're normally active.

Dr. Verma specializes in general pediatrics, newborn care and immunizations. She has clinic hours at Austin Health Center, 4800 W. Chicago Ave., on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and the 2nd and 4th Friday of each month. She also sees patients at Logan Square, 2840 W. Fullerton Ave., on Tuesdays and the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.

To make an appointment with Dr. Verma, contact our health system at 312-864-0200.