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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Tests

What is an RSV test?

RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, is an infection that affects the respiratory tract. Your respiratory tract includes your lungs, nose, and throat. RSV is very contagious, which means it spreads easily from person to person. It's also very common. Most children get RSV by the age of 2. RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. But the virus may lead to serious breathing problems, especially in young babies, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. RSV testing checks for the virus that causes an RSV infection.

Other names: respiratory syncytial antibody test, RSV rapid detection

What is it used for?

An RSV test is most often used to check for infections in infants, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. The test is usually done during the "RSV season," the time of year when RSV outbreaks are more common. In the United States, RSV season usually starts in mid-fall and ends in early spring.

Why do I need an RSV test?

Adults and older children usually don't need RSV testing. Most RSV infections only cause mild symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, and headaches. But an infant, younger child, or an elderly adult may need an RSV test if he or she has serious symptoms of infection. These include:

  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Severe coughing
  • Breathing faster than normal, especially in infants
  • Trouble breathing
  • Skin that turns blue

What happens during an RSV test?

There are a few different types of RSV testing:

  • Nasal aspirate. A health care provider will inject a saline solution into the nose, then remove the sample with gentle suction.
  • Swab test. A health care provider will use a special swab to take a sample from the nose or throat.
  • A blood test. During a blood test, a health care professional will take a blood sample from a vein in the arm, using a small needle. After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube or vial. This usually takes less than five minutes.

Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?

You don't need any special preparations for an RSV test.

Are there any risks to the test?

There is very little risk to RSV testing.

  • The nasal aspirate may feel uncomfortable. These effects are temporary.
  • For a swab test, there may be a little gagging or discomfort when the throat or nose is swabbed.
  • For a blood test, there may be slight pain or bruising at the spot where the needle was put in, but most symptoms go away quickly.

What do the results mean?

A negative result means there is no RSV infection and the symptoms are likely caused by another type of virus. A positive result means there is an RSV infection. Infants, young children, and elderly adults with serious RSV symptoms may have to be treated in the hospital. Treatment may include oxygen and intravenous fluids (fluids delivered directly to the veins). In rare cases, a breathing machine called a ventilator may be needed.

Is there anything else I need to know about an RSV test?

If you have RSV symptoms, but are otherwise in good health, your health care provider probably won't order RSV testing. Most healthy adults and children with RSV will get better in 1-2 weeks. Your provider may recommend over-the-counter medicines to relieve your symptoms.

References

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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV) [updated 2017 Mar 7; cited 2017 Nov 13]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html
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  13. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; What Are the Risks of Blood Tests? [updated 2012 Jan 6; cited 2017 Nov 13]; [about 5 screens]. Available from: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/bdt/risks
  14. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; What To Expect with Blood Tests [updated 2012 Jan 6; cited 2017 Nov 13]; [about 4 screens]. Available from: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/bdt/with
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The medical information provided is for informational purposes only, and is not to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact your health care provider with questions you may have regarding medical conditions or the interpretation of test results.

In the event of a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.