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What You Need to Know about RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)

November 16, 2015
Sick child blowing his nose

Sick child blowing his noseThe respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious virus that can cause an infection of the upper and lower  respiratory tracts. It can affect people of all ages. Minor infection may produce flu-like symptoms. Major infection can result in pneumonia or bronchiolitis (inflammation of the smaller respiratory tracts).

RSV usually occurs from late fall to early spring, with epidemics common in the winter.

How Do You Get RSV?

The virus is spread from person to person through droplets produced when coughing or sneezing, or from contact with contaminated surfaces. RSV can live for hours on surfaces (such as counters, paper, door knobs, etc.) in the environment. If you touch a contaminated surface, you can become infected after rubbing your eyes, nose, or mouth.

The time between exposure to the virus and development of symptoms from the infection is usually 4-6 days.

Infected people can transmit the virus for 3-8 days; however, in young infants, the transmission period may be as long as 3-4 weeks.

The doctor can test the fluid from your nose to check for RSV. 

Who Is at Risk for RSV?

Everyone is at risk for RSV infection. Severe lower respiratory tract disease from the illness is more likely among:

  • Infants and children under 1 year of age. (25-40% have signs and symptoms of bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Hospitalization occurs in 1/2-2% of cases, the majority being under 6 months of age.)
  • The elderly.  
  • Those with underlying heart or lung disease.  
  • Those with weakened or immature immune systems.  
  • No one is immune to RSV; you can get RSV again.

Symptoms of RSV

  • Fever
  • Nasal drainage
  • Cough and congestion
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • Irritability and poor feeding in infants

RSV Treatment

  • Since RSV is a virus, antibiotics are not effective. 
  • People with a severe infection are treated with fluids and oxygen.
  • Removing secretions from the nose may make breathing easier, especially for infants.  
  • There is no vaccine to protect against RSV.  Flu vaccines are not effective in preventing RSV, but it is important for all high-risk infants 6 months and older and their contacts to receive the influenza vaccine and all other age-appropriate immunizations.  

RSV Prevention

  • Synagis is a medication that may be recommended for infants with immature or weakened immune systems from underlying heart or lung disease; it may help protect very high risk children from RSV or at least minimize the severity of the disease if they do become ill. It is only helpful in the prevention of RSV, not in treating it once the child becomes ill.
  • Frequent hand washing is the most effective preventive measure. Instant hand sanitizer can be used when soap and water are not available.  
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow rather than into your hand. Teach this technique to toddlers and young children, too.  
  • Properly dispose of soiled tissues used to clear nasal secretions.  
  • Clean toys with soap and water or disinfectant when shared by multiple children.  
  • Limit exposure to crowded areas, such as malls, during periods of peak incidence.
  • Avoid contact with people who are ill.

For more information, talk to your doctor or pediatrician.