Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)


Photo of Three babies sitting indoors holding hands

What is RSV?

Respiratory viruses are common in children under 5, particularly those who attend daycare. Most cases are mild, but for some children, it can develop into RSV – respiratory syncytial virus – often requiring hospitalization. In fact, it sends more babies to the hospital than any other condition.

Who are high-risk people with RSV? 

For some, the virus can be life-threatening. High-risk groups include:

  • Premature babies in first year of life
  • Infants under 6 months
  • Children with asthma
  • Patients of any age with a weakened immune system or underlying lung or heart problems

What are the symptoms of RSV?

RSV tends to occur and spread in the winter and early spring. It starts as an upper respiratory infection, with familiar cold symptoms. What makes it so dangerous is its ability to quickly spread down from the nose and throat into the lower respiratory tract, where it causes inflammation in the lungs (leading to pneumonia) and the tiny bronchial air tubes (causing bronchiolitis, a lung infection caused by a virus).

Inflammation is the body’s natural process for fighting infection, but in tiny infant airways, it can cause increased airway obstruction and difficulty breathing.

High-risk groups need to take extra precautions during RSV season, learn to recognize the warning signs and seek medical treatment as soon as possible for any of the following RSV symptoms:

  • High fever (or low fever if immune system is compromised)
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Worsening, barking cough
  • Skin, lips or nails turn blue

How is RSV treated?

There is no cure for RSV. Physicians focus instead on treatments that reduce congestion and open airways so the patient can breathe. Serious cases require hospital care, IV fluids, nebulizer medications and oxygen treatments.

Some babies get pneumonia; this needs to be treated aggressively with antibiotics. 

Some high-risk babies may qualify to receive a preventive medicine called palivizumab, given by injection every month during RSV season. Palivizumab is not a vaccine.

 How is RSV prevented?

The highly contagious virus can live on hard surfaces such as doorknobs and tabletops for days and spreads quickly through human contact, often before the infected person shows any obvious signs of the disease. To help prevent RSV:

  • Wash hands frequently, especially before eating or before handling babies
  • Wash and disinfect toys, tabletops, doorknobs and other shared surfaces
  • Avoid sharing cups, eating utensils or food
  • Avoid people with obvious cold symptoms
  • Avoid cigarette smoke, which can increase the risk of infection and severity of symptoms
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