Unproven RSV treatments shared amid outbreak

Copyright AFP 2017-2022. All rights reserved.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has hit children in North America hard this fall, and parents are turning to social media for tips on easing their suffering. However, experts say homemade remedies shared online -- including a popular chest rub made with coconut oil and garlic -- are unproven.

"(Garlic oil ointment treatment) is my new best friend," says an October 26, 2022 Facebook post addressed to parents with children battling RSV infections.

RSV outbreaks have led to high rates of hospitalization in several countries. To treat the virus, the Facebook post recommends making a chest rub from coconut oil and garlic.

"Started last night and his cough is SO much more productive/less intense than the last 2 days," the post says. "Fever is finally down... im a firm believer!"

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken November 14, 2022

The same text has racked up tens of thousands of shares since 2021, with posts claiming the homemade concoction will help children recover from RSV.

Other "old school remedies" promoted on Instagram and TikTok include placing cut red onions in a child's socks overnight or drinking onion water. The claims come amid shortages of over-the-counter children's medicines in Canada.

Experts told AFP that, while likely harmless, these are not proven treatments for RSV.

"The major risk would be delaying proper medical assessment by using an at-home remedy with no benefit," said Michelle Cohen, an Ontario physician, in a November 9 email.

Supportive care

RSV typically infects children by age two and is more commonly contracted in winter months.

While airborne, RSV can also live on countertops and other hard objects for more than six hours, according to Health Ontario. That makes hand hygiene -- washing regularly with soap and water -- key to preventing the virus's spread.

There is no specific treatment for RSV infections, though researchers are working to develop vaccines. The virus generally leads to cold-like symptoms -- such as runny nose, cough and fever -- that are normally mild, but in some cases can make infants seriously ill.

Parents should offer "supportive therapy," including treating fevers with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, keeping children hydrated and using a nasal bulb to suck fluid from an infant's nose, according to Alon Vaisman, an infectious disease expert with the University Health Network in Toronto.

Asked about the homemade treatments recommended on social media, Vaisman said there is "no evidence that any of those things work." They do not "change the virus course," he told AFP on November 9.

Difficult breathing, wheezing or a croupy cough are all "red-flag symptoms," Vaisman said -- particularly for children with underlying medical conditions.

As children's hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, doctors are asking parents to help slow the spread of RSV by keeping sick children home whenever possible.

AFP has also debunked the false claim that Covid-19 vaccination puts children at greater risk of contracting RSV.