Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that 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 serious illness due to RSV. These groups include:

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

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year, RSV leads to more than 57,000 hospitalizations in children under the age of 5 and 177,000 hospitalizations in adults over 65.

Continue reading as we further discuss 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 from year to year.

It usually takes 4 to 6 days after infection for symptoms to develop. Symptoms often improve after 7 to 10 days. However, a cough may linger for several weeks.

In older children and adults, an RSV infection often causes symptoms that are similar to those of other upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold. These can include:

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

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 for between 3 and 8 days.

RSV is typically spread through respiratory droplets that are 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.

Additionally, RSV can contaminate objects and surfaces, where it can survive for several hours. If you touch a contaminated object or surface and then touch your face or mouth, you can potentially become ill.

There are a variety of potentially serious complications that can develop from an RSV infection. Those who are 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 the following:

  • 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 serious for babies and young children, it’s important to 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 serious 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.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) to ease fever as well as aches and pains.
  • 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.

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

There’s currently no vaccine available for RSV, although scientists are working to develop one. However, there are steps you can take in your daily life to help prevent RSV.

To help prevent RSV, you can:

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

If you do become ill, you can do the following to 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 a high risk for serious RSV illness.

Generally speaking, 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) is a virus that 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 proper preventive measures can limit its spread. This includes frequent handwashing, not sharing personal items, and avoiding people who are sick.