Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) results in infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It is so frequent that most children have been infected with the virus by age 2. The respiratory syncytial virus could also infect adults.
In adults and older, healthy children, RSV symptoms are mild and generally mimic the common cold. Self-care measures are generally all that is needed to relieve any discomfort.
RSV could cause severe infection in some people, including babies twelve months and younger (infants), particularly premature infants, older adults, people with heart and lung disease, or anyone with a weak immune system (immunocompromised).
Signs and symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus infection most frequently appear about four to six days after exposure to the virus. In adults and older children, RSV generally causes mild cold-like signs and symptoms. These might include:
In severe cases
RSV infection could spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis — inflammation of the small airway passages entering the lungs. Signs and symptoms might include:
Infants are the most severely affected by RSV. Signs and symptoms of severe RSV infection in infants are:
Most children and adults recover in one to two weeks, although some may have repeated wheezing. Severe or life-threatening infection requiring a hospital stay might occur in premature infants or in anyone who has chronic heart or lung problems.
RSV and COVID-19
Because RSV and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are both types of respiratory viruses, some symptoms of RSV and COVID-19 could be similar. In children, COVID-19 often results in mild symptoms like fever, runny nose, and cough. For adults with COVID-19, symptoms may be more severe and may include difficulty breathing.
Having RSV might lower immunity and increase the risk of getting COVID-19 — for kids and adults. And these infections might occur together, which can worsen the severity of COVID-19 illness.
If you have symptoms of a respiratory illness, your doctor might recommend testing for COVID-19.
Seek immediate medical attention if your child — or anyone at risk of severe RSV infection — has difficulty breathing, a high fever, or blue color to the skin, especially on the lips and in the nail beds.
The respiratory syncytial virus enters the body via the eyes, nose, and mouth. It spreads easily via the air on infected respiratory droplets. You or your child could become infected if someone with RSV coughs or sneezes near you. The virus also passes to others through direct contacts, like shaking hands.
The virus could live for hours on hard objects like countertops, crib rails, and toys. Touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after touching a contaminated object and you are likely to pick up the virus.
An infected person is more contagious during the first week or so after infection. But in infants and those with weakened immunity, the virus might continue to spread even after symptoms go away, for up to four weeks.
By age 2, most children will have been infected with the respiratory syncytial virus, but they could get infected by RSV more than once. Children who attend child care centers or who have siblings who attend school are at a greater risk of exposure and reinfection. RSV season — when outbreaks tend to happen — in the fall to the end of spring.
People at increased risk of severe or sometimes life-threatening RSV infections are:
Complications of the respiratory syncytial virus include:
No vaccine exists for the respiratory syncytial virus. But these lifestyle habits could help prevent the spread of this infection:
The medication palivizumab (Synagis), given in the form of a shot (injection), could help protect certain infants and children 2 years old and younger who are at high risk of severe complications from RSV. High-risk children in this age group are those who:
The first injection is given at the beginning of the RSV season, with monthly injections given during the season. This medication only helps to prevent RSV infection. It does not help treat it once symptoms appear.
Speak with your child's doctor to find out if your child would benefit from this medication and to learn more about it. This medication is not suggested for healthy children or for adults.
Scientists are still working on developing a vaccine to protect against RSV.
Your doctor might suspect respiratory syncytial virus based on the findings of a physical examination and the time of year the symptoms occur. During the examination, the doctor will listen to the lungs with a stethoscope to check for wheezing or other abnormal sounds.
Laboratory and imaging tests are not usually needed. However, they could help diagnose RSV complications or rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms. Tests might include:
Treatment for respiratory syncytial virus usually involves self-care measures to make your child more comfortable (supportive care). But hospital care might be needed if severe symptoms occur.
Your doctor might recommend an over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) to reduce fever. (Never give aspirin to a child.) Use of nasal saline drops and suctioning might help clear a stuffy nose. Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics if there is a bacterial complication, like bacterial pneumonia.
Keep your child as comfortable as you can. Offer plenty of fluids and watch for signs of loss of body fluids (dehydration), like dry mouth, little to no urine output, sunken eyes, and extreme fussiness or sleepiness.
If the RSV infection is severe, a hospital stay might be necessary. Treatments at the hospital might include:
An inhaler (bronchodilator) or steroids have not proven to be helpful in treating RSV infection.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from respiratory syncytial virus, our expert providers at Texas Specialty Clinic will take care of your health and help you recover.