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What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus. It usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. But it can cause serious lung infections, especially in infants, older adults, and people with serious medical problems.
How is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) spread?
RSV spreads from person to person through:
- The air by coughing and sneezing
- Direct contact, such as kissing the face of a child who has RSV
- Touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands
People who have an RSV infection are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days. But sometimes infants and people with weakened immune systems can continue to spread the virus for as long as 4 weeks.
Who is at risk for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections?
RSV can affect people of all ages. But it is very common in small children; nearly all children become infected with RSV by age 2. In the United States, RSV infections usually occur during fall, winter, or spring.
Certain people are at higher risk of having a severe RSV infection:
- Older adults, especially those ages 65 and older
- People with chronic medical conditions such as heart or lung disease
- People with weakened immune systems
What are the symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections?
The symptoms of RSV infection usually start about 4 to 6 days after infection. They include:
These symptoms usually appear in stages instead of all at once. In very young infants, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and trouble breathing.
RSV can also cause more severe infections, especially in people at high risk. These infections include bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.
How are respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections diagnosed?
Your health care provider may use many tools to make a diagnosis:
- A medical history, including asking about symptoms.
- A physical exam.
- A lab test of nasal fluid or another respiratory specimen to check for RSV. This is usually done for people with severe infection.
- Tests to check for complications in people with severe infection. The tests may include a chest x-ray and blood and urine tests.
What are the treatments for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections?
There is no specific treatment for RSV infection. Most infections go away on their own in a week or two. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with the fever and pain. However, do not give aspirin to children. And do not give cough medicine to children under four. It is also important to get enough fluids to prevent dehydration.
Some people with severe infection may need to be hospitalized. There, they might get oxygen, a breathing tube, or a ventilator.
Can respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections be prevented?
There is a vaccine for RSV. It is approved for people ages 60 and older.
There is a medicine to help prevent severe RSV illness in certain infants and children who are at high risk for severe illness. For example, they might be at high risk because they:
- Were born prematurely
- Have congenital heart disease
- Have chronic lung disease
The medicine is given in monthly injections (shots) during RSV season. It may help prevent severe RSV illness, but it can't cure or treat children who already have it. And it cannot prevent an RSV infection.
There are also some steps you can take to lower your risk of getting or spreading an RSV infection, including:
- Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Avoiding touching your face, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
- Avoiding close contact, such as kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups and eating utensils, with others if you are sick or they are sick
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that you frequently touch
- Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Then throw away the tissue and wash your hands
- Staying home when sick
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Learn about Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) (American Lung Association)
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
- FDA Approves First Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Vaccine (05/03/2023; Food and Drug Administration)
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV): Symptoms and Care (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
Diagnosis and Tests
- Nasal Swab (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Test (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
Prevention and Risk Factors
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV): Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV): Transmission (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- Bronchiolitis (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
Statistics and Research
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): Research and Surveillance (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Bronchiolitis (National Institutes of Health)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Respiratory syncytial virus outbreak during the COVID-19 pandemic. How has it...
- Article: Evaluation of symptoms in respiratory syncytial virus infection in adults: psychometric...
- Article: The use of Artificial Intelligence in predicting Respiratory Syncytial Virus-inhibiting flavonoids.
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections -- see more articles
- Bronchiolitis (For Parents) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) (March of Dimes Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV) in Infants and Young Children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- RSV: When It's More Than Just a Cold (American Academy of Pediatrics) Also in Spanish
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV) in Older Adults and Adults with Chronic Medical Conditions (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- RSV antibody test (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish