Respiratory Syncytial Virus
Pronounced: RES-pi-ra-to-re sin-SISH-al VI-rus
Laurie Rosenblum, MPH
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common cause of many lung and airway infections. Examples of infections include:
RSV can infect people of all ages. Infants, young children, and older people tend to have more serious infections. In severe cases, RSV infections can lead to death.
Respiratory System Anatomy of an Infant
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RSV is spreads easily through fluids of the mouth and nose. The virus can live on surfaces and objects for hours. People touch the surface with the virus then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. This is the easiest way for the virus to spread. It can also be spread by inhaling droplets from a sneeze or cough. Someone with the virus may be able to pass it on for 3-8 days.
RSV is more common in infants and young children. Those under 2 years old have highest risk. Other factors that may increase your chance of RSV include:
Exposure to a person infected with the virus or an object contaminated with the virus
Premature birth of an infant
Problems with the heart, lungs, or immune system
Current or recent use of
chemotherapy Previous organ or bone marrow transplant
Problems associated with muscle weakness
The symptoms can vary with age. You may also react different if you have been infected with RSV before. Very young children, elderly people, and people with chronic diseases are more likely to have severe symptoms.
In children younger than 3 years old, symptoms may include:
Stuffy or runny nose
Shortness of breath
Very fast rate of breathing
Bluish color of the lips or fingernails
Abnormal drowsiness or irritability
Lack of appetite
Discharge from the eyes
In children older than 3 years old, and healthy adults, symptoms commonly include:
Runny or stuffy nose
Discharge from the eyes
You will be asked about any symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will suspect a virus based on your symptoms.
There are tests to diagnose RSV. However, they are not usually needed. The result will not affect treatment plan.
Antibiotics are not helpful because RSV is caused by a virus.
Mild infections such as colds will pass on their own. Some steps will help to ease symptoms and decrease discomfort:
Drink plenty of liquids. Water and fruit juice are good choices. Fluids will help to keep nasal fluid thin and easy to clear.
Use a cool-mist vaporizer to humidify the air. It may help reduce coughing and soothe irritated airways.
Use salt water nose drops to loosen mucus in the nose.
Use non-aspirin fever medication, such as acetaminophen, to reduce fever.
Note: Aspirin can cause serious complications in some children with certain infections. It is best to avoid aspirin or aspirin products for children with infections.
Severe infections may need care in a hospital. A medical team can help to keep airways open. Treatment may include:
Oxygen through a tube or mask
Medicine to improve breathing
Mechanical ventilation—if breathing is not possible without help
To help reduce your chance of RSV:
Practice healthy habits, such as:
Wash your hands often. This is very important after being with someone who is sick. Avoid touching your face and rubbing your eyes. Do not share items such as cups, glasses, silverware, or towels with people who may have an infection. Avoid smoke exposure. Medicine may be given to babies with a high risk of serious illness from RSV. It may help to prevent an infection. The shot is given monthly through the fall and winter in children under 2 years old.
American Lung Association
Kids Health—Nemours Foundation
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Last reviewed September 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Kari Kassir, MD Last Updated: 12/12/2018