Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus. It affects your lungs and breathing. People of all ages can get it. The virus is more serious for premature babies, young infants, and older adults with health issues. It is common in the spring and fall. You can get RSV more than once in your lifetime.

Adults older than 65 with heart and lung disease are at increased risk of getting RSV. Certain risk factors make young babies more likely to catch RSV. This includes:

  • Being underweight.
  • Having congenital heart disease.
  • Having a weakened immune system (where your body cannot fight off infections).
  • Having a lung disease.
  • Having a premature birth.
  • Having a neuromuscular disease (such as muscular dystrophy).

Exposure to tobacco smoke while in the mother’s womb.

Symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Symptoms are different based on your age. Older children and healthy adults usually have mild, cold-like symptoms. This includes a cough (that some describe as a “barking” cough), stuffy nose, and a slight fever. Symptoms usually appear 4 to 6 days after catching the virus.

Infants (less than 1 year old), premature babies, and adults who are older than 65 and have lung and heart disease have more serious symptoms. These symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty breathing (shortness of breath, wheezing, rapid breathing).
  • Flaring nostrils.
  • Bluish-color skin (which is due to a lack of oxygen).

What causes respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV is a virus. A common germ found in lung infections causes it. Many children under the age of 2 have had the infection. In the most serious cases, RSV can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis (lung inflammation). The germ is spread through sneezing, coughing, sharing food, cups, eating utensils, touching used tissues, kissing a person with the virus, and touching your nose and mouth after coming into contact with an infected person.

RSV is more likely to spread in crowded areas, such as daycare centers and schools, and in crowded living conditions, such as college dorms.

How is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) diagnosed?

Your or your child’s doctor will usually diagnose RSV based on a patient history (a look at the symptoms) and a physical exam. If the virus is serious, it may require being admitted to the hospital. Hospitals and clinics can do further tests. These tests would include a rapid lab test (by swabbing your nose), a chest X-ray (to check for pneumonia), a blood test (to make sure patients aren’t dehydrated), and other blood or urine tests for young babies who appear seriously ill.

Can respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) be prevented or avoided?

Good hand washing is the best way to prevent or avoid RSV. If you have the virus, stay home and away from work, school, or public places. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze, don’t share food, drink, kisses, or tissues, and don’t shake hands. Do not touch a young baby if you know you have the virus or have cold-like symptoms. Wash your hands with soap, frequently, to reduce being infected or infecting others.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) treatment

RSV cannot be treated with an antibiotic. Antibiotics do not work on viruses. A mild case of RSV will go away untreated after 2 weeks. Young babies and older people who have a serious case of RSV may be admitted into the hospital. There, they may be given oxygen to help them breathe, moist air through a facemask, and intravenous (IV) fluids (when a small needle is inserted into the vein in your arm to give your body fluids). In rare, but extremely serious cases, a patient may need the help of a ventilator (a machine to help you breathe).

Living with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Since most people have a mild case of RSV, living with the virus is like having a cold for 2 weeks. Those young babies or older adults who have to be hospitalized will experience more discomfort (difficulty breathing) until the infection disappears.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Is RSV fatal in young babies and premature infants?
  • If your baby gets RSV once, is he or she more likely to get the virus again?
  • Are over-the-counter cold medicines helpful?
  • How long should I wait to take my premature baby out in public?