RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in one to two weeks. However, some infants and young children are at higher risk, such as premature infants, children younger than two years old with chronic lung disease or congenital (present from birth) heart disease, children with weakened immune systems, and children who have neuromuscular disorders. Additionally, some adults are at higher risk, including people older than 65, adults with chronic heart or lung disease, and adults with weakened immune systems.
To help prevent respiratory viruses, people should:
Cough or sneeze into your elbow.
Wash your hands often with soap and water.
Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work, and school.
Stay home if you are sick.
Keep children home from daycare or school who have fever, especially with a cough, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, congestion, runny nose, or sore throat, until they are fever-free for 24 hours without medications that reduce fever.
Contact your pediatrician or healthcare provider if you believe your child needs medical care. Your provider can offer advice on whether your child needs to be evaluated in person, tested for COVID or flu, and the best location (doctor’s office, urgent care, emergency room) for care.
Get your flu shot. Everyone older than six months of age should be vaccinated every year.
Be up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations. For many people, that means getting a booster.
RSV may not be severe when it first starts. However, it can become more severe a few days into the illness. Early symptoms of RSV may include
- Runny nose
- Decrease in appetite
- Cough, which may progress to wheezing or difficulty breathing
- RSV in Very Young Infants
Infants who get an RSV infection almost always show symptoms. This is different from adults who can sometimes get RSV infections and not have symptoms. In very young infants (less than 6 months old), the only symptoms of RSV infection may be
- Decreased activity
- Decreased appetite
- Apnea (pauses in breathing more than 10 seconds)
- Fever may not always occur with RSV infections.
- You get virus droplets from a cough or sneeze in your eyes, nose, or mouth
- You have direct contact with the virus, like kissing the face of a child with RSV
- You touch a surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touch your face before washing your hands
- People infected with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days and may become contagious a day or two before they start showing signs of illness. However, some infants, and people with weakened immune systems, can continue to spread the virus even after they stop showing symptoms, for as long as 4 weeks. Children are often exposed to and infected with RSV outside the home, such as in school or childcare centers. They can then transmit the virus to other members of the family.
RSV can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables and crib rails. It typically lives on soft surfaces such as tissues and hands for shorter amounts of time.
People are typically infected with RSV for the first time as an infant or toddler and nearly all children are infected before their second birthday. However, repeat infections may occur throughout life, and people of any age can be infected. Infections in healthy children and adults are generally less severe than among infants and older adults with certain medical conditions. People at highest risk for severe disease include
Young children with congenital (from birth) heart or chronic lung disease
Young children with compromised (weakened) immune systems due to a medical condition or medical treatment
Children with neuromuscular disorders
Adults with compromised immune systems
Older adults, especially those with underlying heart or lung disease
In the United States and other areas with similar climates, RSV circulation generally starts during fall and peaks in the winter. The timing and severity of RSV circulation in a given community can vary from year to year.
RSV in Infants and Young Children
do the following:
Wash your hands often
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Washing your hands will help protect you from germs.
Keep your hands off your face
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Germs spread this way.
Avoid close contact with sick people
Avoid close contact, such as kissing, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who have cold-like symptoms.
Cover your coughs and sneezes
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve when coughing or sneezing. Throw the tissue in the trash afterward.
Clean and disinfect surfaces
Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as toys, doorknobs, and mobile devices. When people infected with RSV touch surfaces and objects, they can leave behind germs. Also, when they cough or sneeze, droplets containing germs can land on surfaces and objects.
Stay home when you are sick
If possible, stay home from work, school, and public areas when you are sick. This will help protect others from catching your illness.
Call your healthcare provider if you or your child is having difficulty breathing, not drinking enough fluids, or experiencing worsening symptoms.
Scientists are working to develop vaccines
There is no vaccine yet to prevent RSV infection, but scientists are working hard to develop one.
And there is a medicine that can help protect some babies at high risk for severe RSV disease. Healthcare providers usually give this medicine (called palivizumab) to very premature infants and young children with certain heart and lung conditions as a series of monthly shots during RSV season. If you are concerned about your child’s risk for severe RSV infection, talk to your child’s healthcare provider.