A complete guide to Respiratory Syncytial Virus infection

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s an increase in the number of infections associated with the respiratory syncytial virus. This includes detected infections, RSV-related ER visits, and hospitalizations. Such cases have been recorded in multiple regions in the United States, with some nearing peak levels. For this reason, it’s important for people to learn more about the virus so they can be aware of how to avoid getting infected and how to manage it if they have it.

What is the Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a respiratory illness that causes mild symptoms similar to the common cold. Although most people recover within a week or two, some cases can be serious and life-threatening. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children below 1-year-old. Both conditions affect the lungs.

People at high risk for RSV infection

Most people who get infected with RSV often experience mild symptoms and will recover in just a week or two. However, there are some individuals who are more prone to getting severe RSV. Not only are their symptoms worse, but they also require hospital care and treatment. Plus, the virus can trigger worse symptoms in people with existing health conditions.

The groups of people more likely to develop serious RSV complications are: 


RSV can be life-threatening for infants, especially premature babies and those 6 months old and younger. Infants infected with RSV don’t often show signs or symptoms. In case they do, the only symptoms you’ll notice are:

  • Irritability or fussiness
  • Decreased activity or lack of energy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Episodes of apnea where an infant’s breathing pauses for over 10 seconds

Younger children

In the US alone, 58,000-80,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized because of the RSV infection yearly. Almost all kids will have an RSV before they turn 2 years old. Those at greater risk of having severe RSV infections are children who:

  • Are 2 years old and below with congenital heart disease or chronic lung disease
  • Have weakened immune systems
  • Have neuromuscular disorders

Older adults

Every year, about 60,000-120,000 older adults get hospitalized due to RSV infection. Those who are at greater risk of having severe RSV are:

  • Adults 65 years old and up
  • Adults with chronic heart disease or chronic lung disease
  • Adults with weak immune systems

RSV in older adults usually starts as a mild cold but may develop into pneumonia or a lung infection. It may also lead to:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – a disease in the lungs that makes it difficult to breath
  • Congestive heart failure – a condition when the heart’s unable to pump enough blood and oxygen

Symptoms of RSV

RSV typically starts with mild symptoms, which start showing up within 4 to 6 days from getting infected. Common early symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in or loss of appetite
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Sneezing

When to call a doctor

Call your healthcare provider if your or your child’s symptoms are getting worse, having trouble breathing, or unable to drink enough fluids. Also, watch out for signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, sunken eyes, little to no urination, and extreme fatigue.

RSV diagnosis

A physical examination is needed for a doctor to diagnose an RSV infection. During the exam, they’ll listen to your lungs to check for wheezing or any unfamiliar sound. Although lab work and imaging tests aren’t required, they can help check for complications brought about by RSV and rule out other diseases.

During a visit with the doctor, you can expect:

  • Blood tests
  • Chest x-rays
  • Mouth and nose swabs
  • Oxygen level monitoring

Is RSV contagious?

RSV is a contagious disease. Infected people can spread the virus a day or two before they even start showing symptoms but are only contagious for 3 to 8 days. Infants, especially those with weak immune systems, can continue to spread the virus for as long as 4 weeks.

RSV season

Same with flu season, RSV has its seasonal patterns too. In the US, the circulation of the virus starts during autumn and the peak of the winter season. The seasonal pattern consists of the following:

  • RSV season onset – the rise in the number of positive RSV cases
  • RSV season peak – the maximum number of positive cases within a season
  • RSV season offset – the drop in the number of positive cases

RSV care and treatment

Most of the time, RSV infections go away on their own in just a week or two. While there’s no cure or specific treatment for RSV infections, researchers and scientists are already working to develop vaccines and medicines.

For now, RSV patients can resort to self-care and supportive care measures to minimize the effects of the virus:

  • Take over-the-counter medicines for fever and pain, but don’t give children aspirin
  • Use saline drops to relieve a stuffy nose
  • Drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Consult a doctor for the best medicines for cold, especially for children
  • Keep the room warm
  • Use a mist humidifier to moisten the air
  • Stop smoking or stay away from someone who does

How to prevent RSV

Here are a few helpful steps you can take to prevent RSV infection:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with tissue or your upper shirt sleeve when sneezing or coughing
  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water
  • Avoid close contact with people who have cold-like symptoms
  • Don’t share items with people who have a cold
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched items and surfaces
  • Refrain from kissing or hugging high-risk people
  • Get vaccinated against flu, whooping cough, and/or COVID-19
  • Don’t stay too long around crowds

Get checked before it’s too late

RSV may seem like a mild and manageable virus but it can get severe and dangerous if not addressed immediately. If you or your child has symptoms similar to colds, you may want to consult a doctor immediately to ensure it isn’t RSV. If it is, you can catch it early and prevent it from worsening.

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Disclaimer: The information presented in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered, construed or interpreted as legal or professional advice, guidance or opinion.

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