Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes symptoms like sneezing and coughing. In children, especially those under 2 years old, RSV can also cause bronchiolitis, which is inflammation of the small airways in the lungs.

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While bronchiolitis describes a medical condition, RSV is the virus most likely to cause bronchiolitis.

Having RSV that results in bronchiolitis can make breathing difficult for children because mucus can build up in the lungs.

Both bronchiolitis and RSV are most likely to affect children under 2 years old, but either can affect older children and adults.

You may need to take your child to the doctor if they have RSV or bronchiolitis, especially if their breathing is affected.

Read on for more information about RSV and bronchiolitis, including how they are related, symptoms, and when to visit a doctor.

Bronchiolitis describes inflammation of the bronchiole, which are tiny airways in the lungs. These airways can become inflamed and irritated if you have an infection like RSV.

This leads to symptoms such as productive cough and shortness of breath.

Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild. You can typically treat it at home with rest.

However, very young children, older people, and people with chronic lung conditions may need to visit a doctor.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that causes symptoms similar to a common cold.

RSV is very common. It usually affects young children but can affect adults too. Symptoms in adults are often mild. However, RSV can be very serious in babies, toddlers, and older adults.

RSV causes bronchiolitis. In fact, in the United States, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis in children younger than 1 year.

The symptoms of bronchiolitis can be very similar to a cold and may include:

When to call a doctor

Call a healthcare professional if your child:

  • has symptoms that are getting worse
  • develops a new or higher fever
  • is wheezing

Seek immediate medical care if your child has:

  • trouble breathing
  • shallow, fast breathing (their tummy is going up and down very fast)
  • areas below or between their ribs or around their neck that are sinking in as they try to breathe
  • nostril flaring
  • a hard time being comforted or is very fussy
  • blue lips, fingernails, or skin
  • difficult feeding or is refusing to feed
  • difficulty waking up for feedings
  • signs of dehydration, such as fewer wet diapers or tears
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RSV symptoms are typically minor. They can vary depending on the person who contracts the virus and their age.

Common symptoms in infants include:

  • irritability
  • trouble breathing
  • decreased activity

In adults, RSV symptoms may include:

Healthcare professionals diagnose bronchiolitis and RSV in similar ways. A healthcare professional will perform a physical exam and listen to the lungs.

Other tests a healthcare professional may order include:

In many cases, bronchiolitis resolves on its own. Resting at home, drinking fluids, and taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications can often manage symptoms and help your child recover in about a week.

Cold medications and antibiotics are not effective in treating bronchiolitis.

It’s important to make sure your child does not become dehydrated. Give them plenty of fluids to drink.

Other treatment options include:

  • using saline nose drops to help your child breathe better
  • using a suction bulb to help remove nasal congestion
  • giving OTC acetaminophen (Tylenol) to lower a fever

According to the American Lung Association, around 3% of children with bronchiolitis are hospitalized for 2–8 days. If your child is hospitalized, they may receive treatment such as:

  • humidified oxygen
  • intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration
  • intubation, which is when a tube is inserted into the windpipe to help breathing (only for severe bronchiolitis)

Nearly all people who contract RSV recover on their own. Because of this, there’s no specific treatment for RSV. Doctors and other medical professionals might recommend you take steps at home to stay comfortable, such as:

  • taking OTC medications that can reduce pain and fever
  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids

Infants and young children who develop bronchiolitis may need treatment for that condition as well.

Bronchiolitis develops when you contract a respiratory virus, usually RSV. Respiratory viruses spread through the air. The risk of bronchiolitis increases by being around people who have RSV or bronchiolitis.

It’s possible to reduce the risk of bronchiolitis by avoiding people who are sick.

Today, there are two vaccines for RSV.

In 2023, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an RSV vaccine that can be administered during pregnancy and will protect newborns from RSV.

The FDA also approved a vaccine for adults over 60 years old.

Some factors can increase the chances of severe symptoms resulting from RSV. For instance, all older adults, infants, and toddlers have a heightened risk. Some health conditions can also increase the risk of RSV. They include:

You can prevent RSV by taking the same steps to help prevent other common seasonal infections:

  • Always cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often, especially after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, and being in public.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces in your home, like doorknobs and light switches.
  • Avoid sharing objects, such as utensils.

Bronchiolitis usually resolves on its own without treatment.

However, a small percentage of people, usually very young children, may need additional treatment, including hospitalization.

RSV is usually mild. Most cases resolve in a week or two.

Serious RSV can sometimes progress to more severe infections, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. However, these conditions respond to treatment.

Should I take antibiotics for RSV?

No. RSV is a virus. Antibiotics will not help resolve RSV.

Can you have RSV more than once?

Most people have already had RSV for the first time before they reach their 2nd birthday. However, it’s possible to have RSV again.

In the United States, RSV typically circulates in the fall and winter.

Can bronchiolitis become pneumonia?

Yes, in rare cases. In some people, bronchiolitis can worsen and lead to pneumonia, which is inflammation of the air sacs deeper in the lungs.

Bronchiolitis is a respiratory condition usually seen in children under 2 years old. A virus called RSV most often causes it. Bronchiolitis typically involves symptoms such as coughing and fever.

RSV is a virus that can lead to cold-like symptoms that can leave you feeling run-down for a week or two. It’s more common in children than adults, although people of any age can contract RSV and develop symptoms.

Bronchiolitis and other RSV-caused conditions can progress to serious conditions, such as pneumonia.

Talk with a doctor if a child has any symptoms that worsen, or if any symptoms last longer than a week or two.