Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?
RSV is the most common cause of inflammation of the small airways in the lungs (bronchiolitis)
and pneumonia in babies. It is an illness that often occurs in yearly outbreaks in
communities, school classrooms, and day care centers. In the U.S., RSV is more common
in winter and early spring months.
What causes RSV?
RSV is spread from respiratory secretions through close contact with infected people
or contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. Infection can occur when infectious
material contacts mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth, or nose, and possibly through
the inhalation of droplets generated by a sneeze or cough. The time from exposure
to symptoms (incubation period ) is about 2 to 5 days.
Who is affected by RSV?
RSV can affect a person of any age. Most babies have been infected at least once by
the time they are 2 years old. Babies can also be re-infected with the virus. Recurrence
throughout life is common. RSV infection in older children and adults may seem like
an episode of severe asthma. Babies born prematurely or with heart, lung, or immune
system diseases are at increased risk of more severe illness.
Why is RSV a concern?
In babies at increased risk, infection with the virus can lead to severe respiratory
illness and pneumonia, and may become life-threatening. RSV in infancy may be related
to development of asthma later in childhood. Adults with RSV infection may have severe
What are the symptoms of RSV?
The early phase of RSV in infants and young children is often mild, somewhat like
a cold. In children younger than 3, the disease may progress into the lower airways
and cause coughing and wheezing. In some, the infection progresses to a severe respiratory
disease requiring hospitalization to help the child breathe.
The following are the most common symptoms of RSV:
Apnea (periods without breathing)
Trouble eating, drinking, or swallowing
Flaring of the nostrils or straining of the chest or stomach while breathing
Breathing faster than usual, or trouble breathing
Turning blue around the lips and fingertips
The symptoms of RSV may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see
your baby's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is RSV diagnosed?
Diagnosis is sometimes hard because the symptoms of RSV can look like other infections.
Illness in other family members, other babies in the hospital nursery, or the time
of year may provide clues. In addition to a complete medical history and physical
exam of your child, a test (nasal swab or nasal wash) of the baby's respiratory secretions
may show the presence of a virus.
What is the treatment for RSV?
There are no medicines used to treat the virus itself. Care of a baby with RSV involves
treating the effects of the virus on the respiratory system. Because a virus causes
the illness, antibiotics are not useful, unless there is also a bacterial infection.
Treatment may include:
Children with very serious breathing problems are put on ventilators (a machine that
helps with breathing).
How can RSV be prevented?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies at high risk for RSV
receive a medicine called palivizumab. Ask your child's healthcare provider if your
child is at high risk for RSV. If so, ask about monthly injections during RSV season
to help prevent RSV.
To reduce the risk for RSV and other viral infections, the AAP recommends all infants,
especially preterm infants:
Other members of the household need to get a flu shot and clean hands with alcohol-based
hand cleaners before and after touching babies with RSV.