Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Definition

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a very common virus that leads to mild, cold-like symptoms in adults and older healthy children. It can be more serious in young babies, especially those in certain high-risk groups.

Causes

RSV is the most common germ that causes lung and airway infections in infants and young children. Most infants have had this infection by age 2. Outbreaks of RSV infections most often begin in the fall and run into the spring.

The infection can occur in people of all ages. The virus spreads through tiny droplets that go into the air when a sick person blows their nose, coughs, or sneezes.

You can catch RSV if:

RSV often spreads quickly in crowded households and day care centers. The virus can live for a half an hour or more on hands. The virus can also live for up to 5 hours on countertops and for several hours on used tissues.

The following increase the risk for RSV:

Symptoms

Symptoms can vary and differ with age:

Infants under age 1 may have more severe symptoms and often have the most trouble breathing:

Exams and Tests

Many hospitals and clinics can rapidly test for RSV using a sample of fluid taken from the nose with a cotton swab.

Treatment

Antibiotics do not treat RSV.

Mild infections go away without treatment.

Infants and children with a severe RSV infection may be admitted to the hospital. Treatment will include:

A breathing machine (ventilator) may be needed.

Outlook (Prognosis)

More severe RSV disease may occur in the following infants:

Rarely, RSV infection can cause death in infants. However, this is unlikely if the child is seen by a health care provider in the early stages of the disease.

Children who have had RSV bronchiolitis may be more likely to develop asthma.

Possible Complications

In young children, RSV can cause:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if breathing difficulties or other symptoms of this disorder appear. Any breathing problems in an infant are an emergency. Seek medical help right away.

Prevention

To help prevent RSV infection, wash your hands often, especially before touching your baby. Make certain that other people, especially caregivers, take steps to avoid giving RSV to your baby.

The following simple steps can help protect your baby from getting sick:

Parents of high-risk young infants should avoid crowds during outbreaks of RSV. Moderate-to-large outbreaks are often reported by local news sources to provide parents with an opportunity to avoid exposure.

The drug Synagis (palivizumab) is approved for the prevention of RSV disease in children younger than 24 months who are at high risk for serious RSV disease. Ask your provider if your child should receive this medicine.


Review Date: 2/19/2018
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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