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.
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:
A person with RSV sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near you.
You touch, kiss, or shake hands with someone who is infected by the virus.
You touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contaminated by the virus, such as a toy or doorknob.
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:
Attending day care
Being near tobacco smoke
Having school-aged brothers or sisters
Living in crowded conditions
Symptoms vary and differ with age. They usually appear 4 - 6 days after coming in contact with the virus.
Older children usually have only mild, cold-like symptoms, such as croupy cough (often described as a "seal bark" cough), stuffy nose, or low-grade fever.
Infants under age 1 may have more severe symptoms and often have the most trouble breathing:
Bluish skin color due to a lack of oxygen (cyanosis) in more severe cases
Call your health care 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.
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:
Insist that others wash their hands with warm water and soap before touching your baby.
Have others avoid contact with the baby if they have a cold or fever. If necessary, have them wear a mask.
Be aware that kissing the baby can spread RSV infection.
Try to keep young children away from your baby. RSV is very common among young children and easily spreads from child to child.
Do not smoke inside your house, car, or anywhere near your baby. Exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of RSV illness.
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 doctor if your child should receive this medicine.
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Committee on Infectious Diseases. Modified recommendations for use of palivizumab for prevention of respiratory syncytial virus infections. Pediatrics. 2009;124:1694-1701.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 158.
Bronchiolitis Guideline Team. Bronchiolitis pediatric evidence-based care guidelines for management of bronchiolitis in infants 1 year of age or less with a first time episode. Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center Guidelines. 2010.
Crowe JE Jr. Respiratory syncytial virus. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 252.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.