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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

What is RSV?

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is one of the most common viruses that cause respiratory tract infections, especially in children under the age of 4 years. In infants and young children, RSV is the most important cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Most children will have been exposed to the virus by the time they are 3 years old, but will only have mild symptoms. Sometimes, you cannot tell these symptoms from the common cold.

When does RSV occur?

RSV is a seasonal virus. It usually only occurs in the winter and spring months. The time between when a child is infected and when symptoms first appear (incubation period) ranges from 2 to 8 days.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

RSV causes a stuffy nose, runny nose, and cough. Wheezing may also be present. Wheezing is usually a high-pitched sound that can be heard when the infant breathes out. There can be a low-grade fever linked with RSV, as well as ear infections. The low-grade fever may last for several days, and the cough will at times persist for 2 weeks.

Can RSV be serious?

There are some children who do develop a lower respiratory infection as a result of the RSV virus. Each year, there are about 80,000 children with RSV who need to be hospitalized. Most of these children were born prematurely or have an underlying cardiac or respiratory problem.

How can I know if my child's infection is severe?

Any child who develops the following signs and symptoms should be checked by his or her physician:

  • Signs of stressful breathing
  • More frequent cough
  • Decrease in activity level
  • Decreased appetite

How is RSV detected?

The physician or nurse will need to do a nasal (nose) swab for a culture. The swab is sent to the lab and the final results will be available within 24 hours. Usually, your physician will keep your child on the same treatment, even after the test results come back.

How is RSV treated?

Most RSV infections run their course (self-limiting) and need no specific treatment. If your child has a fever, you can give him or her acetaminophen (such as Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (such as Motrin® ) as directed by your physician. There are some children who will develop an ear infection with RSV and may need to be treated with antibiotics. Using normal saline nasal drops and suctioning nasal passages with a bulb syringe may be all that is needed. If your infant or child is wheezing, your physician may order albuterol (Proventil®, Ventolin®), a medication that opens the airways in the lungs. Albuterol is best given as an inhaled form. The office staff will instruct you on how to properly use the medicine. The albuterol will usually be given four times a day for seven to 10 days.

There are a small number of children who are admitted to the hospital for additional treatment.

Where does RSV come from and how can I protect my child?

Humans are the only source of the infection. The virus spreads when a person comes into direct contact with an infected person's body fluids (such as mucus from the nose). The virus can live on environmental surfaces for hours and on hands for more than one and a half hours.

Good hand washing is very important in preventing the virus from spreading. During the RSV season, infants, young children, and children with cardiac or respiratory illnesses should be kept from having close contact with people who are sick. Your child should not be around tobacco smoke; the smoke will further irritate his or her lungs.

Can my child get RSV again?

Yes, your child can get RSV again, but it is likely that the symptoms will be milder than the first time.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.This document was last reviewed on: 3/6/2009...#4925