What is respiratory syncytial virus?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the major cause of infections of the breathing passages and lungs in infants and young children. In addition to causing pneumonia, it is the leading cause of bronchiolitis (an infection of the bronchioles, the small breathing tubes of the lungs).

RSV is transmitted from an infected child by secretions from the nose or mouth by direct contact or by droplets in the air. The period of greatest contagiousness is in the first two to four days of the infection. RSV can last between two and eight days, but symptoms can remain for up to three weeks. RSV occurs more commonly during the winter and early spring.

RSV infects almost all children at least once before they are two years old. Most of the time, this virus only causes minor cold-like symptoms. However, for some babies, infection can be more dangerous.

For certain infants who are premature or who are born with heart disease or lung disease, RSV infection can be especially serious. Preterm infants often have underdeveloped lungs and may have difficulty fighting an RSV infection once they become infected.

What are the signs and symptoms of RSV?

Signs and symptoms of RSV include, but are not limited to:

  • Fever (temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Cough
  • Wheezing
  • Runny nose
  • Rapid breathing
  • Deep breathing
  • Blue colored lips or fingernails
  • Poor appetite

How is RSV treated?

If your child is having difficulty breathing or has asthma, your doctor may advise gentle nasal suction of mucus and a humidifier to help open his or her airways. Inhaled medications are sometimes helpful in the hospital setting.

Some youngsters with bronchiolitis may have to be hospitalized for treatment with oxygen. If your child is unable to drink because of rapid breathing, he or she may need to receive intravenous fluids. On rare occasions, infected babies will need a respirator to help them breathe. Antibiotics are not used for treating viral infections, including those caused by RSV.

There are things you can do at home to help your child feel more comfortable, although any illness that complicates your child’s breathing should be evaluated first by your child’s doctor.

How can I make my child feel better at home?

  • Do not allow anyone to smoke around your child or in the home. This can complicate breathing.
  • Try using a cool mist vaporizer to soothe dry breathing passages if recommended by your doctor. Hot-air vaporizers should be avoided because of the risk for scald burns.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of fluids, such as breast milk or formula for infants, or milk, juices, and water for older children.
  • For fever, give your child medicine such as acetaminophen. Do not give your child aspirin.
  • Saline nasal drops my help loosen mucus in the nose.
  • Blow little noses frequently (or use a nasal aspirator for infants).
  • Allow your child plenty of rest, as needed.
  • Give all medicines as instructed by your child’s doctor.

How can I prevent my child from getting RSV?

RSV is most contagious during the first two to four days after your child begins to feel ill. It is spread by contact with infected secretions, such as saliva and mucus from sneezing. An older brother or sister in day care, nursery school, or elementary school can transfer RSV to infants and toddlers.

You can prevent RSV from spreading by:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly after caring for your child.
  • Keeping your children home from day care when they or other children become ill.
  • Washing toys between each use.
  • Covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Be sure to throw away any used tissues.

Contact your child’s doctor immediately if your baby or child:

  • Has breathing difficulties;
  • Has gray or blue skin color;
  • Has a fever that climbs above 101°F;
  • Has thick nasal discharge that is yellow or green;
  • Is younger than two or three months and has a fever;
  • Shows signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth, crying without tears, and urinating less often.

Questions to ask your child’s doctor

  • Should I give my child medication? If so, for how long and at what times of the day?
  • How should I store the medication? Should I refrigerate it?
  • When will my child start to feel better?
  • Will I need to bring my child back for a follow-up visit?
  • Should I keep my child home from school or day care?
  • Should my child be limited from certain activities? If so, which ones?
  • Are there certain foods or liquids my child should have or avoid?
  • Which over-the-counter pain relievers do you recommend?
  • Which over-the-counter medications or preparations are NOT recommended?
  • Which symptoms should I report to the doctor?

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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: 6/21/2017...#8282