What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

RSV is a viral infection of the respiratory system, including the lungs and nasal passages. RSV is most common in the winter, spring, and fall. The timing grandparentand severity of RSV varies each year.

Who is at risk for RSV?

Anybody can get RSV, but babies and older adults are at higher risk for severe infection caused by the virus. People most at risk for RSV include:

  • Premature infants
  • Children under 2 with congenital heart or chronic lung disease
  • Children with a weakened immune system due to an illness or medical treatment
  • Adults with compromised immune systems
  • Adults 65 and older

What complications are associated with RSV?

RSV can cause both upper respiratory infections such as the cold and lower respiratory infections such as pneumonia.   In babies under the age of 1, RSV is the most common cause of bronchitis and pneumonia.

What is the incidence rate for RSV?

Almost all children will get an RSV infection by their second birthday.   Of those exposed to RSV:

  • 25-40 out of 100 will have signs of bronchitis or pneumonia
  • 5-20 out of 1,000 will require hospitalization

What are the symptoms of RSV?

People infected with RSV will usually show symptoms within 4-6 days. Most will recover in 1-2 weeks, although babies with weakened immune systems can spread the virus up to 3 weeks after recovery. Symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

In can be difficult to detect symptoms in young babies, but they may show signs including:

  • Irritability
  • Decreased activity
  • Breathing difficulties

How is RSV treated?

There is no specific treatment for RSV. Visits to the doctor for these infections are very common. Occasionally, a patient will require hospitalization to fully treat an RSV infection. In otherwise healthy children, hospitalization is rare. Of those hospitalized, most will only be treated for a few days and will recover within 1-2 weeks. Infants may require supplemental oxygen, suctioning of mucus from the airways, or intubation with mechanical ventilation.

How is RSV spread?

RSV is spread when somebody coughs or sneezes and the virus-containing droplets enter somebody’s mouth, eyes, nose, or ears. Children are often exposed to RSV in daycares or at school. It can also spread by coming into contact with oral or nasal secretions. Contact can be direct (e.g. kissing a sick child’s face) or indirect (e.g. touching a sick child’s toy). RSV can live on surfaces for hours at a time.

People with RSV are usually contagious for 3-8 days. Infants and people with weakened immune systems can be contagious for up to a month.

How is RSV prevented?

There is no vaccine to prevent RSV, although one is currently being developed. You can prevent RSV by:

  • Covering coughs and sneezes
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Avoid sharing eating utensils with others
  • Refrain from kissing
  • Clean contaminated surfaces such as toys or doorknobs

For high risk children and infants, a drug called palivizumab is available to help prevent severe RSV.   The drug cannot treat severe cases or prevent development of serious RSV. If your child is high risk, talk to their doctor to see if palivizumab can be used as a preventative measure.

For more information on RSV, click here.