Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection is a common cause of lung and airway infections in infants and small children. Symptoms are similar to the common cold. Rarely, RSV may cause complications.

It’s estimated that up to 80,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized with RSV infections each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

RSV is also responsible for nearly 14,000 deaths per year in people ages 65 years and older.

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment for RSV.

The severity and types of symptoms you experience may depend on your age, but they typically appear within 4–6 days of contracting the virus.

Symptoms of an RSV infection for both adults and children are similar to the common cold, including:

  • fever
  • congestion
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • wheezing

Very young infants with RSV may seem irritable, tired, and have some congestion. Most children will experience RSV by the time they are 2 years old, according to the CDC.

When is RSV a medical emergency?

It’s important to get immediate medical attention if your child is experiencing:

  • difficulty breathing, such as shortness of breath
  • fast breathing, which may be characterized by their chest “caving in” around their ribs with every inhale and their nostrils flaring out with every exhale
  • bluish skin, lips, or nails, which may not always be visible on darker skin tones

Call 911 or local emergency services as soon as you can. These may be signs of a more severe complication, such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

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RSV vs. COVID-19

RSV and COVID-19 are both respiratory viruses.

Many of their symptoms may overlap, such as runny nose, fever, and cough. However, there are some differences:

  • RSV doesn’t cause a loss of taste or smell, which are symptoms characteristic of COVID-19.
  • Young children and infants with RSV typically experience a slow onset of cold-like symptoms and then a quick escalation.

If you or your child experience symptoms, get tested for COVID-19 or speak with a healthcare professional. They could provide a proper diagnosis and develop a treatment plan based on the condition.

RSV is a viral infection that can be transmitted through close contact with someone who has the virus.

For example, if you’re standing next to someone with RSV and they cough or sneeze, their infected water droplets may get into your nose, eyes, or mouth. It’s also possible to get the virus by touching something, such as a toy or a doorknob, that was touched recently by someone with the virus.

You may be contagious and transmit the disease for 3–8 days after catching the virus, according to the CDC. However, you may be contagious for up to 4 weeks after catching the virus if you have a weakened immune system.

The CDC suggests that some young children and older adults are at a higher risk of developing a serious RSV infection. These individuals include:

Children and infantsAdults
premature babies
• infants ages 12 months or less
• children with weakened immune systems
• children younger than 2 years old with heart or lung diseases
• children attending daycare
• age 60 years and over
• have a weakened immune system
• live with underlying health conditions, such as heart and lung disease
• live in crowded areas, such as nursing homes

If you experience any symptoms of RSV and fall into one of the groups listed above, speak with a healthcare professional. They could monitor your symptoms and develop a treatment plan to prevent complications.

Research suggests that the most common complications associated with RSV include:

  • pneumonia
  • non-RSV lower and upper respiratory tract infections
  • chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • hypoxia (low blood oxygen)
  • dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • acute respiratory failure
  • congestive heart failure

Children with more severe RSV infections may also develop ear infections and croup.

In very severe cases of RSV, you may need to be hospitalized and could also require extra oxygen.

Testing for RSV is often not needed, according to the American Lung Association.

That said, several tests may help a healthcare professional make a diagnosis.

The most common test is a rapid diagnostic test. This test looks for RSV antigens in your mucus. A doctor can take a nasal swab and send it for testing. The results are usually available in less than an hour.

If a rapid test is negative, a doctor may order a virus culture of your mucus.

For more serious cases, a doctor may perform a blood test, chest X-ray, or CT scan to check for lung complications.

Most cases of RSV will clear up on their own without treatment in up to 2 weeks, according to the CDC.

RSV is a virus, which means it can’t be treated with medications like antibiotics.

Some remedies may help you recover more quickly, including:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers

For babies and toddlers, regular suctioning of mucus from their nose with a rubber bulb can relieve congestion. Saline drops can also loosen mucus and help with the suction process.

Very young infants may need to be hospitalized if they require breathing support.

RSV vaccine

In 2023, several RSV vaccines were approved by the Food and Drug Administration for adults and children.

  • Adults: Arexvy (GSK) and Abrysvo (Pfizer) are approved for adults ages 60 years and older. Abrysco has also been approved for people pregnant at 32–36 weeks to help protect infants.
  • Children: Nirsevimab-alip (Beyfortus) has been approved for infants entering their first RSV season (typically from September to January) and those up to 24 months old who are vulnerable to RSV.

Speak with a healthcare professional about whether vaccines are right for you or your child.

RSV is spread, like other viruses, through microscopic droplets released into the air or on surfaces.

The CDC recommends the following tips to help minimize your risk of contracting the virus:

  • wash your hands frequently
  • cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • don’t share utensils or drinking cups
  • avoid touching others who may have an infection

Wearing a face mask may also help prevent the transmission of RSV.

What are the first signs of RSV?

RSV usually develops in stages, according to the CDC. Early signs may include a runny nose, fever, and congestion.

How serious is respiratory syncytial virus?

RSV typically resolves on its own without treatment. However, infants, young children, and adults over age 60 years may have a higher risk of developing complications, such as pneumonia.

What is the best treatment for RSV?

There’s no cure for RSV. Usually, the virus clears on its own without treatment. That said, drinking plenty of fluids, getting rest, and taking OTC pain relievers may help you recover more quickly.

Is RSV a form of COVID-19?

No, RSV is not a form of COVID-19. That said, research suggests that COVID-19 may increase your chance of developing an RSV infection.

RSV is a common virus that tends to pop up during the fall and winter. It may affect anyone, but it’s more common in young children and babies.

In most people, the symptoms of RSV are mild and usually clear up on their own after a week or so.

However, sometimes symptoms could be more serious.

Speak with a doctor if you notice symptoms in yourself or your child. They could help develop a proper treatment plan.