RSV in Infants and Children

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus. It affects the lungs and its bronchioles (smaller passageways that carry air to the lung). RSV is one of the most common causes of childhood illness, infecting most children by two years of age. RSV can also infect adults.

Most healthy children and older adults who get RSV will get a mild case with cold-like symptoms. Only self-care or “comfort care” is usually needed.

Severe infection with RSV can lead to pneumonia (an infection in the lungs) and bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and may require hospital care. People at greatest risk of severe infection are the very young (those less than six months old), those over the age of 65 and those of any age who have heart or lung conditions or a weakened immune system. RSV can also make existing heart and lung problems worse.

Is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) contagious? How is it spread? How long does it last?

Yes, RSV is highly contagious — particularly during the three- to seven-day period a person has symptoms. Some infants and people with weakened immune systems may remain contagious for as long as four weeks.

The virus is spread through close contact, when an infected person sneezes or coughs and the virus becomes airborne and gets into your body through your eyes, nose or mouth. It’s also spread by touching objects that the virus has landed on and then touching your face. RSV can live on hard surfaces for many hours.

It takes between two to eight days from the time a person is exposed to the RSV to show symptoms. Symptoms generally last three to seven days. Most children and adults recover fully in one to two weeks.

How common is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Most children get RSV before two years of age. Infection is easily spread in young children because of their close contact with other children who may be infected, through the sharing of their toys and constant touching of objects that may be contaminated with the virus. Some 57,000 children under age five require hospital care due to RSV each year in the U.S.

Among adults, about 177,000 older adults are hospitalized each year for RSV. Some 14,000 adults die due to this infection each year.

Is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) a seasonal illness?

Yes, like the flu, RSV is a seasonal illness. It occurs in most areas of the U.S., starting in late fall and lasting through early spring.

Who gets respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection?

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 and certain adults, the infection can be more dangerous.

Infants and adults at highest risk of severe or life-threatening RSV infection are:

  • Premature infants (because their lungs are underdeveloped).
  • Infants under 6 months of age.
  • Infants born with heart or lung disease.
  • Children and adults with weakened immune systems, including those who have received an organ transplant or those undergoing chemotherapy.
  • Children who have difficulty swallowing or can’t clear mucous.
  • Adults 65 years of age and older.
  • Adults with heart and lung diseases, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma.

What are the signs and symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in infants?

Common symptoms of RSV in infants include:

  • Runny nose.
  • Decrease in appetite.
  • Sneezing and coughing.
  • Fever (temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit). Fever may not always be present.

Symptoms in the youngest infants include:

  • Fussiness/irritability.
  • Decreased activity/more tired than usual.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Pauses in breathing.

Symptoms of severe RSV in infants include:

  • Short, shallow and rapid breathing.
  • Flaring (spreading out) of nostrils with every breath.
  • Belly breathing (look for a “caving in” of the chest in the form of an upside-down “V” starting under the neck).
  • Bluish coloring of lips, mouth and fingernails.
  • Wheezing (This can be a sign of pneumonia or bronchiolitis.)
  • Poor appetite.

What are the symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in older children and adults?

Many older children and adults have no symptoms or very mild symptoms. Common symptoms of RSV in those who do get symptoms are similar to the common cold and include:

  • Runny nose.
  • Congestion.
  • Mild headache.
  • Sore throat.
  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

What serious conditions can respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) lead to?

Serious conditions that can arise from RSV include:

  • Pneumonia or bronchiolitis.
  • Worsening symptoms in people with such conditions as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and congestive heart failure.

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