Respiratory syncytial virus infection, usually called RSV, is a lot like a bad cold. It causes the same symptoms. And like a cold, it is very common and very contagious. Most children have had it at least once by age 2.
RSV is usually not something to worry about, but it can lead to pneumonia or other problems in some people, especially babies. So, it's important to monitor the patient and call a doctor if symptoms get worse.
What causes RSV infection?
This infection is caused by a virus. Like a cold, RSV attacks your nose, eyes, throat and lungs. RSV spreads like a cold too, when you cough, sneeze or share food or drinks.
There are many kinds of RSV, so your body never becomes immune to it. You can get it again and again throughout your life, sometimes during the same season.
What are the symptoms?
RSV usually causes many of the same symptoms as a bad cold, such as:
- stuffy or runny nose (much more mucus than with a common cold)
- mild sore throat
Babies with RSV may also:
- have no energy
- act fussy or cranky
- be less hungry than usual
Some children also have more serious symptoms, like wheezing.
Can you prevent RSV infection?
It's very hard to keep from catching RSV, just like it's hard to keep from catching a cold. But you can lower the chances by practicing good health habits. Wash your hands often and teach your child to do the same. Make sure that your child is up to date with the vaccines your doctor recommends.
Medication to prevent RSV may be given to patients with high risk conditions (prematurity or compromised immune system). These medicines don’t always prevent RSV, but they may keep symptoms from getting serious.
How is RSV diagnosed?
Doctors usually diagnose RSV by assessing your symptoms and whether there has been an outbreak in your area. Typically, testing isn’t needed unless the patient is likely to have complications from RSV.
Once infected with RSV, people are typically contagious for 3 to 8 days, but infants may continue to spread the virus even after symptoms stop for up to 4 weeks.
How do I care for someone with RSV?
Like with a cold, home treatment is all that is needed for most people. RSV usually goes away on its own after a week or two. Here’s how to care for a patient with RSV.
- Prop up your child's head to make it easier to breathe and sleep.
- Suction your baby's nose if he or she can't breathe well enough to eat or sleep.
- Relieve fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, if needed. Take special care when giving your child medicine. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Note: Never give aspirin to someone younger than 20 years, because it can cause a serious but rare problem.
- Watch for signs of dehydration. Make sure to replace fluids lost through rapid breathing, fever, diarrhea, or vomiting. Encourage more frequent breast- or bottle-feeding. Opt for Pedialyte instead of giving your child sports drinks, soft drinks, undiluted fruit juice, or water. These beverages may contain too much sugar, contain too few calories, or lack the proper balance of essential minerals (electrolytes).
When is it serious?
RSV can be serious when the symptoms are very bad or when it leads to other problems, like pneumonia. The following groups of people are more likely to have problems with RSV:
- Babies younger than 6 months, especially those born early (prematurely)
- People with immune system problems
- People with heart or lung problems
- Adults older than 65
Patients in the categories listed above sometimes need treatment in a hospital. This is why it’s important to watch the patient’s symptoms and talk to a doctor if they get worse. If your child is showing signs of the following, it may be a good idea to head to the ER:
- Ribs sucking in
- Fast breathing
- Nasal flaring when breathing
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