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Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections

Also called: RSV

Summary

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:

  • Infants
  • Older adults, especially those age 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

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

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?

To make a diagnosis, the health care provider

  • Will take a medical history, including asking about symptoms
  • Will do a physical exam
  • May do a lab test of nasal fluid or another respiratory specimen to check for RSV. This is usually done for people with severe infection.
  • May do 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 are no vaccines for RSV. But you may able to reduce your risk of getting or spreading an RSV infection by

  • 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

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