It’s common for most children to have had an RSV infection by their 2nd birthday. RSV is highly contagious. It’s transmitted through respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes.

The virus can survive for hours on hard surfaces, such as crib rails and highchairs. A child can pick up the virus when they touch a contaminated surface and then touch their nose, mouth, or eyes.

RSV transmission typically occurs where children gather, such as in day care centers and schools.

It’s usually a mild infection, similar to the common cold. But it can be severe in children under 5 years old and children with certain health conditions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms tend to appear within 4–6 days of infection. Sometimes, the only symptoms in an infant are:

  • fussiness
  • less activity, tiredness
  • breathing problems

More severe infection in an infant may cause:

  • shallow, rapid breathing
  • struggling to breathe
  • coughing
  • poor feeding
  • fever

Older children and adults may have:

  • congestion, runny nose
  • sore throat
  • sneezing
  • headache
  • poor appetite

Signs that RSV has spread to the lower respiratory tract are:

  • high fever
  • severe coughing
  • wheezing
  • breathing problems
  • skin that looks bluish

Most of the time, RSV is mild and resolves without treatment. However, infants are among the most vulnerable to severe RSV. The virus can lead to serious illness in certain populations, such as:

  • children under age 5 years, particularly infants under 6 months old
  • infants who were born prematurely
  • children with congenital heart or lung disease or neuromuscular disorders
  • anyone with a weakened immune system or underlying heart or lung disease
  • adults over age 65 years

Research from 2022 suggests that 90% of children contract an infection by age 2 years. About 40% of those children develop a lower respiratory tract infection with their first RSV infection. This includes pneumonia (lung infection) and bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung).

According to the CDC, each year RSV leads to 58,000–80,000 hospitalizations and 100–300 deaths in children under age 5 years. The overall rate of death from RSV is less than 1%.

Most people recover from RSV within a week or two.

Hospitalized children can usually go home in 3–4 days. Infants at particularly high risk may need to stay in the hospital a little longer.

Most children, even those who need hospitalization, have a full recovery.

Most RSV infections go away on their own.

There’s no specific treatment for RSV, but there are a few ways you can ease symptoms and keep your child comfortable:

  • Run a cool-mist humidifier to make breathing easier.
  • Use nasal saline and nose suction to clear stuffiness, especially before feedings.
  • Offer plenty of fluids and more frequent feedings.
  • If your baby is older than 6 months, you can try giving acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), but do not give them aspirin. It’s a good idea to check with a doctor first.

Call a doctor if your baby has worsening symptoms, particularly trouble breathing, not taking in enough fluids, or high fever.

If your child has to stay in the hospital, treatment may include:

  • suctioning the mucus
  • intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration
  • oxygen to assist with breathing
  • mechanical ventilation (breathing machine)
  • tube feeding

Medications, such as antibiotics and steroids, are not helpful in treating RSV.

When someone contracts the virus, it can be passed to other people for 3–8 days, according to the CDC.

In infants and those with a weakened immune system who contract an infection, RSV can be passed on for as long as 4 weeks, even if the person has no obvious symptoms.

Like the common cold, RSV tends to be seasonal, showing up from late fall to early spring. You don’t gain long-term immunity, so your child can get it many times.

Two monoclonal antibody drugs can help protect infants and young children at risk of severe disease from RSV. Both require intramuscular injection.

Nirsevimab (Beyfortus) is for all infants younger than 8 months who are born during RSV season or are just entering their first one. A single dose offers protection for approximately 5 months, about the length of high community transmission each season.

Palivizumab (Synagis) is for children under age 2 years who are at high risk of severe disease. It’s a once-a-month dose during RSV season.

Speak with a doctor to find out whether these are good options for your child.

RSV is a common seasonal viral infection. Most children get it at some point.

You can treat your child at home in most cases. The risk of severe, even life threatening disease is greater in infants, older adults, and those with a compromised immune system.

Most children fully recover in a week or two with no lasting complications.

Consider speaking with a doctor before RSV season. Find out whether your child is at high risk and what to do if you spot symptoms.

You can find more information and support through your local health department or the American Lung Association’s RSV Resource Library.