RSV can be transmitted by breathing in virus-containing respiratory droplets from someone who has RSV. It can also be spread by touching a surface or object that’s come in contact with the virus.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes a respiratory infection with symptoms like coughing, runny nose, and fever. Many times, RSV can be managed with at-home care and will go away in a week or two.

However, RSV has the potential to cause potentially serious complications in infants, young children, and older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year, RSV leads to:

  • 58,000–80,000 hospitalizations in children under age 5
  • 60,000–120,000 hospitalizations in adults ages 65 and older

RSV can be transmitted from one person to another. Knowing more about how it spreads can help prevent you from contracting RSV.

RSV can be transmitted in the following ways:

  • breathing in virus-containing respiratory droplets when a person with the virus sneezes or coughs
  • having direct contact with the virus, for instance by:
    • touching a surface or object that someone with RSV has come into contact with, and then touching your face
    • kissing the face of an infant or child that has RSV

Once you’ve contracted the virus, it typically takes between 4 to 6 days for symptoms to develop. This is referred to as the virus’s incubation period.

Is RSV contagious?

RSV is contagious. This means that it can be spread from one person to another.

You’re typically contagious with RSV for between 3 to 8 days. You can also be contagious a day or two before your symptoms develop.

Previous research in 2016 estimates that one person with RSV may potentially transmit the virus to about three other people. However, this number can vary based on various biological, environmental, and social factors.

Does RSV spread better in certain environments?

RSV is seasonal. In the United States, the number of RSV cases typically starts to increase in the fall, peaks during winter, and begins to taper off in the spring.

The CDC notes that children are often exposed to RSV outside the home in day care or school settings where there are larger groups of people. They can then transmit RSV to others in their household.

How long can RSV last on surfaces?

RSV can be present on surfaces and objects. If you touch these objects and then touch your face, you can contract the virus.

How long RSV lasts outside of the body depends on the surface it’s on as well as the temperature and humidity. A 2014 review of research notes that RSV is generally stable at room temperature for:

  • 3–30 hours on hard surfaces, like countertops and tables
  • less than 1 hour on porous surfaces, such as paper and clothing
  • less than 1 hour on your hands

It’s not possible to prevent all cases of RSV. In fact, 90% of children contract RSV within their first 2 years of life.

However, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk that you or your child will come down with a case of RSV. For instance, you can:

  • wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water
  • avoid touching your face if your hands aren’t clean
  • avoid sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses, or personal items like toothbrushes
  • limit close contact with people who are sick
  • avoid large crowds of people, especially in areas that aren’t well ventilated

If you currently have RSV

If you or your child are sick with RSV, there are also steps you can take to prevent spreading the virus to others, such as:

  • washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water, especially after sneezing or coughing
  • covering sneezes and coughs with a tissue or the crook of your elbow
  • regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces in your home, such as countertops, light switches, and door knobs
  • limiting contact with others, where possible, until you’ve recovered

The common symptoms of RSV include:

When to get medical care

Most cases of RSV can be managed at home by getting rest, staying hydrated, and using over-the-counter medications to help ease symptoms.

In some situations, RSV can become serious and potentially life threatening. Seek immediate care if you or your child are experiencing:

  • symptoms that don’t improve or start to get worse with at-home treatment
  • difficulty breathing
  • dehydration
  • skin, lips, or nails that are pale, gray, or blue in color
  • reduced alertness
  • trouble staying awake or difficulty waking up

RSV can lead to serious complications, especially in higher-risk groups like infants, young children, and older adults. These complications can make it very difficult to breathe and include:

  • bronchiolitis: inflammation of the small airways in the lungs
  • pneumonia: when infection inflames the tiny air sacs in your lungs

People who experience complications due to RSV may need to be hospitalized to receive IV fluids and supplemental oxygen. In very severe situations, mechanical ventilation may be necessary.

Timely diagnosis and treatment are very important for those at a high risk of complications from RSV. Never hesitate to seek care if you or your child develop concerning symptoms that may be due to RSV.

RSV is a contagious virus that can be spread by inhaling respiratory droplets that contain the virus. You can also get it through contact with surfaces, like door knobs or countertops, where RSV is present. In the United States, RSV infections peak in the winter months.

While not all cases of RSV can be prevented, you can take steps to reduce your risk of contracting the virus. This includes things like frequent handwashing and avoiding close contact with people who have the virus.

RSV can turn serious, especially for babies, young children, and older adults. Because of this, it’s important for those at high risk of RSV complications to get prompt diagnosis and treatment if they develop symptoms.