RSV season typically starts during the fall but it may continue to circulate until the spring.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes respiratory infections. It’s one of the most common causes of childhood illness, and it can also infect adults.

Some groups of people have a higher risk for severe illness due to RSV. These groups include:

  • babies and young children
  • older adults
  • people with underlying health conditions

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year, RSV leads to more than 58,000 hospitalizations in children under the age of 5 and 60,000 hospitalizations in adults over 65.

Continue reading about RSV, its seasonal trends, symptoms, and treatment.

RSV does exhibit seasonal trends. That means it’s more common at certain times of the year.

In the United States, the RSV season typically begins in the fall. The virus can continue to circulate until the spring months.

While the overall fall-to-spring seasonal pattern of RSV remains consistent, the exact timing of the beginning, peak, and end of the RSV season can vary slightly yearly.

It usually takes 4 to 6 days after infection for symptoms to develop. Infections typically go away on their own after 1 or 2 weeks. However, a cough may linger for several weeks.

In older children and adults, an RSV infection often causes symptoms of the common cold. These can include:

Some of the symptoms in babies and young children can be slightly different. Some symptoms to look out for include:

RSV infections can be more severe in at-risk groups. In these cases, the virus often spreads to the lower respiratory tract. The symptoms of a more severe case of RSV include:

Yes, RSV is contagious. That means it can be spread from person to person. Someone who has an RSV infection can typically transmit the virus between 3 and 8 days.

RSV is typically spread through respiratory droplets produced when a person with RSV coughs or sneezes. If these droplets enter your nose, mouth, or eyes, you can contract the virus.

You can also spread the virus through direct contact. One example of this is kissing the face of a baby who has RSV.

Also, RSV can contaminate objects and surfaces, where it can survive for several hours. If you touch an affected object or surface and then touch your face or mouth, you could become ill.

Various potentially serious complications can develop from an RSV infection. Those at an increased risk for complications include:

  • premature babies
  • babies 6 months or younger
  • children with chronic lung or heart conditions
  • older adults
  • adults with asthma, COPD, or congestive heart failure
  • individuals with a weakened immune system

Some potential complications of RSV include:

  • Bronchiolitis. This is inflammation of the small airways in the lung, which can block the flow of oxygen.
  • Pneumonia. This is an infection that causes inflammation of the small air sacs in your lungs, which can make it difficult to breathe.
  • Worsening of underlying conditions. Symptoms of other conditions, like asthma and COPD, may become more severe.

Because RSV can be potentially severe for babies and young children, make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician if you notice:

  • a decrease in appetite
  • lower energy levels
  • fever
  • wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • cold symptoms that begin to get worse

Seek immediate medical care if you, your child, or a loved one shows any of the following RSV symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • quick or shallow breathing
  • nostril flaring
  • a severe “barking” cough
  • skin that appears blue in color
  • intercostal retractions

Most of the time, RSV can be treated with at-home care. The best way to treat the infection at home is to:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink more fluids than usual to prevent dehydration.
  • Run a cool-mist vaporizer to add moisture to the air to help with congestion.
  • Use saline drops and a bulb syringe to clear mucus from a baby’s nose.
  • Stay away from cigarette smoke or other respiratory irritants.

Depending on the infant’s age, a doctor may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) to ease fever as well as aches and pains. Talk with your baby’s doctor before using these OTC medications.

More severe cases of RSV may need to be managed in the hospital. Treatment may include:

There’s currently no vaccine for RSV, although multiple vaccine candidates are being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are expected to be approved later in 2023. RSV vaccines under review from Pfizer and GSK would protect adults over 60. The FDA is also reviewing a monoclonal antibody shot developed by AstraZeneca to prevent RSV in newborns and infants.

There are other steps you can take daily to help prevent RSV including:

  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water.
  • Avoiding sharing personal items like drinking glasses, eating utensils, and toothbrushes.
  • Trying to avoid coming into close contact with people who are sick.
  • Cleaning your child’s toys frequently.
  • Limiting the time children spend at child care centers during the season when RSV is circulating, if possible.

If you do become ill, the following may help limit the spread of the virus:

  • Plan to stay at home until you feel better.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water.
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or into a tissue instead of into your hands. Promptly dispose of any used tissues.
  • Disinfect any surfaces you frequently use, such as doorknobs, faucet handles, and remote controls.

A drug called palivizumab can be used as a preventive measure for babies and young children at high risk for severe RSV illness. Palivizumab is a monoclonal antibody shot, like AstraZeneca’s drug currently under review.

Generally, this includes premature babies born at 29 weeks or earlier and babies or young children with certain underlying health conditions.

Palivizumab is given as a once-monthly injection during RSV season.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes seasonal respiratory illness. RSV season typically begins in the fall. The virus can continue to circulate until spring.

Many people who get RSV experience a mild illness. However, some groups are at an increased risk for more serious illness, with complications like bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

RSV is contagious, but taking preventive measures can limit its spread. This includes frequent handwashing, not sharing personal items, and avoiding people who are sick.

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