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RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) Infection

RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is a common cause of respiratory infections in people of all ages. The infection occurs more often in the winter and early spring. RSV is so common that almost all children have had the virus by age 2. Older adults and people who have weakened immune systems can get another infection later in life as their initial immunity to RSV decreases. RSV symptoms are usually mild. But it can be a serious problem in high-risk infants, young children, and older adults. These groups may have more serious infections and trouble breathing.

How RSV spreads

RSV spreads easily when people with the infection cough or sneeze. It also spreads by direct contact with an infected person. For example, by kissing a child with the virus. And, the virus can live on hard surfaces. A person can get the infection by touching something with the virus on it. For example, crib rails or door knobs. It spreads quickly in group settings, such as daycare and schools.

Symptoms of RSV

Most babies and children with an RSV infection have the same symptoms they might have with a cold or flu. These include a stuffy or runny nose, a cough, headache, and a low-grade fever. Older adults may get pneumonia.

Treating RSV

There is no specific treatment for RSV. Antibiotics are not used unless a bacterial infection is present. Try the following to relieve some of your child's symptoms:

  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider or nurse about lowering your child's fever. You should know what medicine to use and how much and how often to use it. Make sure your child isn't wearing too much clothing. 

  • If your child is old enough, give him or her fluids, such as water and juice.

  • Remove mucus from your infant’s nose with a rubber bulb suction device. Be gentle to avoid causing more swelling and discomfort. Ask your child’s provider or nurse for instructions.

  • Don’t let anyone smoke around your child.

Infants and children with severe symptoms are hospitalized. They are watched closely and may receive the following treatment:

  • IV (intravenous) fluids

  • Oxygen 

  • Suctioning of mucus

  • Breathing treatments

Children with very serious breathing problems have a breathing tube inserted (intubation). This is attached to a machine (ventilator) that helps them breathe.  

When to seek medical advice

Call your child's provider right away if your child has any of the following:

  • Fever, as directed by your child's provider, or:

    • In an infant younger than 12 weeks old, a fever of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher

    • In a child younger than 2 years old, a fever that lasts more than 24 hours

    • In a child age 2 or older, a fever that lasts more than 3 days

    • In a child of any age, repeated fevers of 104°F (40.0°C) or higher

    • A seizure with a high fever

  • A cough

  • Wheezing, breathing faster than usual, or trouble breathing

  • Flaring of the nostrils or straining of the chest or stomach while breathing

  • Skin around the mouth or fingers turning bluish

  • Restlessness or irritability, unable to be soothed

  • Trouble eating, drinking, or swallowing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Needing to sit upright (in bed or in a chair) to catch his or her breath

Preventing RSV infection

To help prevent the infection:

  • Clean your hands before and after holding or touching your child. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are recommended. Or wash your hands with warm water and soap.  

  • Clean all surfaces with disinfectant cleaners or wipes.

  • Teach your child to keep his or her hands clean. Have your child wash his or her hands often or use alcohol-based hand cleaner.

  • Have other family members or caregivers clean their hands before holding or touching your child.

  • Closely watch your own health and that of family members and your child’s playmates. Try to prevent contact between your child and those with a cold or fever.

  • Don’t smoke around your child.

  • Ask your child's healthcare provider if your child is at risk for RSV. If your child is at risk, he or she may get shots (injections) during RSV season to help prevent the illness.

Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Lentnek, Arnold, MD
Last Review Date: 1/1/2017
© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.