Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that can affect people of all ages. Infection is more common among children and infants. For many adults and healthy children, RSV infection causes symptoms similar to those of a cold. In infants, however, RSV can be more serious.

The infection usually causes no serious damage, but it can lead to serious lung complications.

RSV is one of the most common viruses to cause lung and airway infections in infants and small children. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that each year in the United States over 57,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized with RSV infections.

The CDC also mentions that the virus is seasonal and is most commonly seen from September to May.

Some individuals are at a higher risk of developing serious RSV infection. These individuals include:

  • premature babies
  • those with weakened immune systems
  • children with heart or lung diseases
  • those living in crowded conditions
  • children attending day care
  • adults over the age of 65

Depending on your age, symptoms and type of RSV infection 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 strongest symptoms.

Common symptoms of RSV infection for both adults and children include:

  • fever
  • congestion
  • cough

Less common symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • difficult, short, or fast breathing
  • bluish skin
  • irritability, malaise, or trouble breathing in infants

Usually, these are only seen with more severe infections, such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. If you see your child showing any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

Testing for RSV is often not needed. If it’s required, there are several types of laboratory tests used for diagnosis. The most commonly used is the rapid diagnostic test. This test looks for RSV antigen in 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. They may also choose a more sensitive test that uses genetic technology to detect 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 the cold or flu. Many of these cases of RSV resolve without treatment. Getting sufficient rest and drinking plenty of fluids can help children recover. Also, regular suctioning of mucus from the nose with a rubber bulb can relieve congestion in babies and toddlers.

In younger children, especially under the age of 1, RSV can be more severe. RSV infection can lead to bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the small air passages in the lungs. It can also lead to pneumonia. These children may need to be hospitalized. Treatment with intravenous fluids, oxygen, and humidified air may be required. In more severe cases, a ventilator may be necessary.

In addition to having increased risk of more serious infections, children can develop ear infections and croup, which is an inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords. This causes a loud, barking sound when coughing. Children who develop bronchiolitis as a result of RSV may have a higher risk of developing asthma, though the cause isn’t clear. Most children infected with RSV, however, have few if any complications, and the infection runs its course in one or two weeks.

There’s 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.

To minimize your risk of becoming infected:

  • wash your hands frequently
  • cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • avoid sharing utensils and drinking cups

Don’t smoke near your child. Cigarette smoke, even secondhand smoke, can increase their risk of developing RSV.

Palivizumab (Synagis) is an antibody targeted specifically at the RSV virus. It can be used in some high-risk infants under the age of 12 months to prevent infection. This drug is administered monthly as a shot during the RSV season. It can help prevent severe infection but can’t cure or treat illness that has already developed.