What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, is a common virus that targets the lungs and can cause infection in the upper and lower respiratory tracts.

Here are some RSV facts:

  • RSV is a seasonal illness, like the flu, with most infections occurring between late fall and early spring.
  • Most healthy children and adults will have mild symptoms, and the condition usually resolves within a week or two.
  • Some RSV infections become severe and require medical attention if pneumonia or bronchiolitis develops.
  • People do not form lifelong immunity to RSV, so repeat infections can occur.
  • There are currently no vaccines or antiviral therapies for RSV, but scientists are working on developing them.


How does the RSV virus spread?

RSV travels through the air in droplets from coughs and sneezes. These droplets can enter the body through the eyes, nose, and mouth. Droplets can live on countertops, doorknobs, toys, and phones for hours, making it easy to transmit through touch. RSV is typically contagious for around a week. However, the virus can continue to spread for up to four weeks for people with weakened immune systems.


Is RSV serious?

RSV is one the most common childhood viral illness, and many children contract an infection by age 2. It often resembles a common cold, with a cough and runny nose. However, some RSV cases develop labored breathing, and possibly bronchiolitis or pneumonia that requires hospitalization.


Who is most at risk?

Those at an especially high risk include: 

  • Infants under six months, especially premature infants
  • Children under the age of 2 with chronic lung or heart conditions
  • Young children with compromised immune systems or neuromuscular disorders (difficulties clearing mucous or swallowing)
  • Adults with a compromised immune system, underlying heart or lung disease; or residing in a community home
  • Pregnant women and their developing unborn babies


What are mild-to-moderate RSV symptoms?

Mild-to-moderate RSV symptoms often resemble a common cold, and can include runny nose, congestion, sneezing, a decrease in appetite, coughing, and fever.


What should I do if my child shows mild to moderate RSV symptoms?

To manage cold-like symptoms:

  • Reduce fever and pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Increase fluid intake – especially gently warmed fluids like Pedialyte.
  • Use a cool mist vaporizer.
  • Remove nasal fluids with a bulb syringe and saline drops.
  • Encourage plenty of rest.
  • Sit with your child in a humid or steamy bathroom.

There is no specific treatment for mild to moderate RSV infection. If symptoms increase in severity, inform your pediatrician so they can give further advice.


What are some severe RSV symptoms to look for, and when should I go to the hospital?

Call your pediatrician, 911, or visit an emergency room if your child or an adult exhibits the following symptoms:

  • Short, shallow, slow, fast, or labored breathing
  • Muscles/ribs poking out
  • Belly breathing - with the chest caving in to form an upside-down “V” beginning under the neck
  • Flaring of the nostrils with every breath
  • Pauses while breathing (apnea) or breathing with difficulty
  • Blue or grey color to the lips, mouth, or fingertips


How are severe RSV infections treated?

If RSV develops into a severe respiratory disease, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, medical attention and hospitalization may be required. Hospitalized patients may require:

  • IV fluids
  • Oxygen
  • Tube feedings
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Medications


How is RSV diagnosed, are there tests to determine if it is RSV?

Testing isn’t typically done for mild to moderate cases. If complications arise, Rapid RSV antigen tests are the most common test. These tests use a nose swab sample or nasal aspirate, and can provide results in an hour or less. Another test is a molecular test called rRT-PCR.

RSV and COVID-19 infections may occur together, so patients with respiratory illness symptoms may be tested for both.

What can I do to protect my family and prevent against RSV transmission?

Parents with young children, and adults at increased risk, should follow these steps:

  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or sleeve, not hands.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid activities involving close contact with others, such as shaking hands; kissing; and sharing cups, food, or eating utensils.
  • Frequently clean high-contact surfaces such as mobile phones, doorknobs, countertops, faucets, TV remotes, light switches, touchscreens, desks, and car interiors.
  • Limit time spent in places such as childcare centers or crowded places.
  • Wash baby toys, bottles, cups, and items in your baby’s immediate environment frequently.
  • Avoid smoky environments.
  • Wear a mask in public places, especially crowds.

All family members should get flu shots each year. This will help keep your children from needing hospitalization if hospital volumes from RSV and other illnesses are higher. Since RSV and COVID are both respiratory illnesses, COVID vaccine and boosters are also recommended.


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