Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a seasonal, highly contagious respiratory virus that often feels like a common cold. But infants and some adults face a higher risk of severe symptoms and complications. Treatment usually involves at-home care. Some people need oxygen, fluids or other care at a hospital to fully recover.
RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is a virus that can lead to a respiratory infection in babies, children and adults of all ages. An RSV infection usually causes a mild, cold-like illness that goes away in one to two weeks. But RSV can sometimes cause severe symptoms and lead to complications, especially in children under age 5, adults over age 65 and people with a compromised immune system.
Washing your hands often and avoiding large groups during respiratory season can help you and your family stay healthy. If you or your child come down with RSV, at-home care is often enough to manage symptoms until the infection clears. But some people need care at a hospital to fully recover.
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RSV symptoms typically resemble those of a common cold and include:
Babies younger than 6 months don’t always have typical cold symptoms. Instead, they may only:
Severe infections may lead to symptoms like:
RSV is a virus. It isn’t a bacterial infection. The specific virus responsible is a respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV for short.
You catch RSV from close contact with someone with the infection or by touching a contaminated object and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. In either case, saliva, mucus and snot are the vehicles that carry the virus from one person to another.
RSV can live on hard surfaces like tables for several hours. Meanwhile, if you touch that surface, you can pick up the virus on your hands. Washing your hands removes the virus and ends its journey there. But if you touch your face first, the virus can enter your body and make you sick.
RSV is very contagious. You can easily spread the virus while you have symptoms, which is usually a period of three to eight days. RSV spreads through respiratory droplets that leave your body when you cough or sneeze.
Complications of RSV include:
Severe RSV infection and complications can affect children and adults of any age, including those who are otherwise healthy.
People most at risk include:
Healthcare providers diagnose RSV by:
There isn’t a specific treatment for RSV in children or adults. Antibiotics don’t treat RSV. Instead, healthcare providers recommend using treatments you’d typically use for a cold. For example, you might:
The goal is to manage symptoms while the infection runs its course.
Babies, children and adults with severe RSV may need to stay at a hospital (typically just for a few days) to recover. Providers may:
It’s not always possible to prevent RSV. But you can take some steps to protect your family from RSV and other respiratory viruses:
Yes. There’s a vaccine for RSV that certain adults are eligible to receive. There’s also a monoclonal antibody immunization for infants.
Here’s what to know:
Talk to your healthcare provider about what’s best for you and your family.
The RSV vaccine tells your immune system to create antibodies that destroy RSV in your body before the virus can do much harm. The RSV monoclonal antibody immunization gives your infant ready-made antibodies so their immune system (which is still developing) doesn’t have to produce them. These antibodies protect your baby from serious illness and hospitalization.
Most people develop symptoms four to six days after exposure to RSV. Once they appear, symptoms usually clear up within two weeks, but the cough can linger in a mild form for several weeks after the initial infection. Severe cases of RSV may last longer.
RSV is contagious while you have symptoms, which is typically three to eight days. You may be able to spread RSV a day or two before you develop symptoms. Some babies, as well as people with compromised immune systems, may be contagious even after symptoms go away, for up to four weeks.
RSV can be deadly due to its complications. Each year in the U.S., RSV causes:
Thankfully, immunizations can help lower your risk of serious illness or death from RSV.
You can often manage RSV symptoms on your own. But you should call a healthcare provider if you have symptoms and at least one of the following applies to you:
Your provider will let you know if you should come in for a checkup. They’ll also help you identify signs of a severe infection that may need treatment.
Call a pediatrician if your child has RSV symptoms and is under the age of 3 months. You should also call if your child has any of the following:
It’s also a good idea to call a pediatrician if your baby has any symptoms of RSV and is under 12 months old.
Visit the emergency room if you or your child has severe RSV symptoms, including changes to your breathing or blue or gray skin color.
RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. Syncytial is pronounced sin-SISH-uhl.
Yes. It’s possible to get RSV many times throughout your life. Some people get it twice within the same year.
Yes. RSV is a seasonal illness, like the flu. In most areas of the U.S., RSV is most active from October through March.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
RSV is never a welcome guest in your home. And sometimes even the most diligent preventive measures aren’t enough to keep it away. It’s hard dealing with seasonal viruses, and when they cause severe symptoms, the situation can get downright scary.
The good news is healthcare providers are prepared to handle RSV if it becomes serious. They can also treat complications. The key is recognizing when to seek care. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a provider if you or anyone in your family has RSV symptoms. Meanwhile, do whatever you can to stop the spread of RSV to others. From handwashing to staying home while sick, you can do a lot to help others stay healthy while you recover.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/15/2023.
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