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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Common symptoms of RSV in infants include:
Symptoms in the youngest infants include:
Symptoms of severe RSV in infants include:
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:
Serious conditions that can arise from RSV include:
Your healthcare provider will take your or your child’s medical history and ask about symptoms. The physical exam will include listening to your or your child’s lungs and checking oxygen level in a simple finger monitoring test (pulse oximetry). They may order blood testing to check for signs of infection (such as a higher than normal white blood cell count) or take a nose swab to test for viruses.
If more severe illness is suspected, your healthcare provider will order imaging tests (X-rays, CT scan) to check your or your child’s lungs.
If you or your child has mild symptoms, prescription treatment is usually not needed. RSV goes away on its own in one to two weeks. Antibiotics are not used to treat viral infections, including those caused by RSV. (Antibiotics may be prescribed, however, if testing shows you or your child has bacterial pneumonia or other infection.)
Some young children who develop bronchiolitis may have to be hospitalized to receive oxygen treatment. If your child is unable to drink because of rapid breathing, he or she may need to receive intravenous fluids to stay hydrated. On rare occasions, infected babies will need a respirator to help them breathe. Only about 3% of children with RSV require a hospital stay. Most children are able to go home from the hospital in two or three days.
If you are an older adult and especially if you have a weakened immune system, you may need to be hospitalized if the RSV is severe. While in the hospital, you may receive oxygen or be put on a breathing machine (ventilator) to help your breathe or receive IV fluids to help with dehydration.
No vaccine is available to treat RSV yet. Scientists are working on developing one.
Currently, there is no cure for RSV. However, scientists continue to learn about the virus and look for ways to prevent the infection or better manage severe illness.
Pavlivimab is a drug approved to prevent severe RSV in certain infants and children at high risk for severe disease. The drug doesn’t cure RSV, is not used to treat children who already have severe RSV and can’t prevent RSV infection. It is given as monthly injections during the RSV season. Ask your healthcare provider if pavlivimab is an appropriate drug to prevent RSV infection in your child.
People who contract certain viruses can sometimes build an immunity to a virus. This means that they will not become infected again for some length of time or even forever. This is not the case for RSV. It’s possible for you or your child to get RSV more than once over your life and even more than once during a single RSV season.
The good news is that repeated infections tend to be less severe than the original infection. However, if you are an older adult or an adult with a weakened immune system or long-term heart or lung disease, RSV infection may be more serious if you are infected again.
You can follow the same precautions that one follows if they have the cold, flu or any other contagious disease:
Additional tips for children:
Most cases of RSV are mild and cause cold-like symptoms. Almost all children under two years of age will be infected with RSV.
Most cases of RSV in adults and healthy children will not require treatment. Infants and older adults at greatest risk of severe RSV can develop pneumonia or bronchiolitis or experience a worsening of their existing heart and lung conditions and may require hospitalization.
You can help prevent the spread of RSV by following good common sense hygiene / cleanliness tips.
Always contact your healthcare provider or go to the emergency department if you have breathing problems, high fever or are concerned about any of your or your child’s symptoms.
Call your healthcare provider if you or your child has these symptoms:
Additional symptoms to watch for in young children include:
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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 healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 04/02/2020