Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that can affect individuals of all ages. It’s more common among children and infants than it is among adults. For adults and healthy children, RSV causes symptoms similar to those of a cold. In infants, however, RSV can be more serious.
Though most of the time the infection causes no serious damage, it can lead to other serious lung complications.
RSV is the most common virus that causes infections of the lungs and airways in infants and small children. Data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that each year in the United States, between 75,000 and 125,000 children under the age of 1 are hospitalized with RSV.
According to the March of Dimes, the virus is seasonal, and is most commonly seen from October to March.
Some individuals are at higher risk for developing serious RSV infection. These individuals include premature babies, individuals with weakened immune systems, children with heart or lung disease, individuals living in crowded conditions, and children attending day care. Adults over the age of 65 years are also at increased risk.
Depending on your age, symptoms of RSV can vary. They typically surface within four to six days of infection. Older individuals have mild symptoms like congestion or fever. Children under the age of 1 exhibit the most marked symptoms.
Common symptoms of RSV (for both adults and children) include:
- fast breathing or difficulty breathing
- bluish skin from oxygen deprivation
- shortness of breath
Infants may exhibit irritability, malaise, or trouble breathing. If you see your child showing any of these symptoms, see your doctor.
There are several different types of laboratory tests used to diagnose RSV infection, but the most commonly used is the rapid diagnostic test. This test looks for RSV antigen in the nasal secretions. A nasal swab can be taken in your doctor’s office and sent for testing. The results are usually available in less than an hour. If a rapid test is negative, your doctor may order a virus culture of the secretions or choose a more sensitive test that uses genetic technology to verify the virus in the blood.
Since RSV is a virus, it can’t be treated with medications like antibiotics. In most cases, especially in older children, symptoms of RSV are similar to other respiratory infections like the cold or flu. Many of these cases of RSV resolve by themselves without treatment. Getting sufficient rest and drinking plenty of fluids can help children recover from RSV. Also, regular suctioning of mucus from the nose with a rubber bulb can relieve congestion in babies.
In younger children, especially under the age of 1, RSV can be more severe and can lead to bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the bronchioles or small airways, and pneumonia. These patients should be hospitalized. Treatment with intravenous fluids, oxygen, and humidified air will be required, and in more severe cases, the use of a ventilator may be necessary.
In addition to the RSV infection advancing to bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children, they can develop ear infections and croup, which is an inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords, causing a loud, barking sound when coughing. Children who develop bronchiolitis as a result of RSV may have a higher risk of developing asthma. Most children infected with RSV, however, have few if any complications, and the infection runs its course in one or two weeks.
There is no cure for RSV, but there are ways to reduce your risk of getting and spreading the virus. RSV is spread like other viruses — through microscopic droplets released into the air or on surfaces. Washing your hands frequently, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding sharing utensils and drinking cups can all minimize your risk of becoming infected.
Don’t smoke near your child. Cigarette smoke, even secondhand smoke, can increase the risk of developing RSV.
Palivizumab is an antibody targeted specifically at the RSV virus and can be used in high-risk infants under the age of 24 months to prevent the infection. This drug is administered once monthly during the RSV season, October through March, by muscle injection. It can help prevent severe infection, but can’t cure or treat illness that has already developed.