RSV is a respiratory infection that can be severe in young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems. It’s usually diagnosed with a nasal swab, but there are a couple of types.

RSV is a major cause of human respiratory infections, particularly in young children. The infection is most severe and occurs most frequently in young children.

The infection is seasonal and usually occurs in late fall to spring, peaking in the cold winter. It’s very contagious. so it can affect many people within a community at the same time.

Read on to learn more about why the RSV test may be used, what tests are available, and what you’ll need to do based on your test results.

RSV is particularly common in infants and children, so it’s important to be aware of its symptoms if you have a little one.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly all children will contract RSV by the time they turn 2 years old. However, only a small portion of them will have severe symptoms.

In babies, RSV can cause:

  • Bronchiolitis: This is inflammation of the small airways in their lungs.
  • Pneumonia: This is inflammation and fluid in one or more than one part of their lungs.
  • Croup: This causes swelling in the airway that leads to breathing difficulties and a cough.

In older children, teens, and adults, RSV infection is usually less severe.

The RSV test should be performed within a few days of symptoms appearing because there’s more detectable virus.

The following are the common and less common types of RSV testing.

Common testing types

These two types of tests, which both use nasal fluid samples, are used most often to detect RSV:

  • Rapid RSV antigen test: This test checks for antigens, or proteins, from the RSV virus. It can produce results in under an hour. It’s not sensitive in adults, but it’s 80–90% sensitive in infants and young children.
  • Real-time reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR): With this molecular test, the sample is sent to a lab and checked for genetic material from the RSV virus. It can detect small amounts, making it highly sensitive in older children and adults.

Less common testing types

These two tests for RSV are not commonly performed. They don’t detect infection, but instead check for the level of antibodies against RSV, which may indicate a previous or current infection.

  • RSV antibody test: This test uses a blood sample to detect RSV. It is mostly used to collect data for research purposes, such as determining the RSV risk factors for young children.
  • Viral culture: A nasal fluid sample is taken to a laboratory, where it’s placed in a dish and observed to monitor the growth of the RSV virus. This test is not as sensitive as rRT-PCR and antigen tests.

Although testing is not required for an RSV diagnosis, a test can recognize RSV among other infections.

The RSV test is most often performed on premature babies or children under 2 with congenital heart disease, chronic lung disease, or a weakened immune system. Infants and children with these conditions are at the highest risk of severe infections, including pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

The symptoms of an RSV infection are like those of other respiratory infections.

Symptoms in infants younger than six months old may include:

  • decreased activity
  • irritability
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • in severe cases, the chest may cave in, and nostrils flare with each breath
  • in severe cases, bluish fingernails and lips

Symptoms in older children and adults over the age of 65 may include:

No special preparation is required for this test. It’s just a quick swab, suction, or wash of your nasal passages to gather enough secretions or fluids in your nose and throat to test for the virus.

Be sure to tell the doctor about any medications, prescription or otherwise, you currently take. These may affect the results of this test.

An RSV test is commonly done in the following ways:

  • Nasal aspirate: A healthcare professional uses a suction device to take out a sample of your nasal secretions to test for the presence of the virus.
  • Nasal wash: A healthcare professional fills a sterile, squeezable bulb-shaped tool with a saline solution, inserts the tip of the bulb into your nostril, slowly squeezes the solution into your nose, then stops squeezing to suck a sample of your secretions into the bulb for testing.
  • Nasopharyngeal (NP) swab: A healthcare professional slowly inserts a small swab into your nostril until it reaches the back of your nose. They’ll move it around gently to gather a sample of your nasal secretions, then slowly remove it from your nostril.

There are almost no risks associated with an RSV test.

However, might feel uncomfortable or nauseous when a nasal swab is inserted deep into your nose. Your nose might bleed, or the tissues may become irritated.

The result of an RSV test will either be negative or positive.

Negative for RSV

A negative result from a nasal test means that there’s most likely no RSV infection.

Positive for RSV

Usually, a positive result means that you have an RSV infection. A doctor will let you know what your next steps should be.

In babies with symptoms of an RSV infection and positive test results, hospitalization is often not required because symptoms usually resolve at home in one to two weeks. However, RSV testing is most often done on sicker or higher-risk infants who are most likely to need hospitalization for supportive care until their infections improve.

There’s no specific treatment available for RSV infection. A doctor may recommend giving your child acetaminophen (Tylenol) to keep any existing fever down or nasal drops to clear out a stuffy nose.

A medication called palivizumab (Synagis) is given to some high risk children under 2 years old to help prevent serious RSV infections.

If you have asthma, an inhaler to widen the air sacs in your lungs (known as a bronchodilator) can help you breathe more easily. Your doctor may recommend using ribavirin (Virazole), an antiviral medication that you can breathe in if your immune system is weak.

RSV infection is rarely serious and can be treated successfully in various ways.

The following are the answers to some common questions about RSV tests.

Is there a vaccine for RSV?

As of January 2023, 33 RSV vaccines are currently in development. However, as of March 2024, a few options have been approved for different age groups:

  • Infants and children: Nirsevimab (Beyfortus), and Palivizumab (Synagis) are preventative antibodies that are recommended for children aged 24 months or younger.
  • Pregnant individuals: People can get the Pfizer Abrysvo vaccine during weeks 32–36 to pass protection onto their developing fetus.
  • Adults 60 and over: Two medications — GSK Arexvy and Pfizer Abrysvo — are approved for older adults at risk of RSV.

How do you test for RSV?

To test for RSV, a healthcare professional will use a swab or nasal wash to obtain fluid from your nose. Depending on the type of test, the result may be available in an hour, or the sample may be sent to a lab.

Is there a test for RSV for adults?

For adults and older children, the real-time reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR) test can detect smaller amounts of the RSV virus than a rapid RSV antigen test can.

This test is preferable because adults and older children usually have less RSV virus in their noses than infants and young children.

Can I test for RSV at home?

The Pixel by Labcorp COVID-19+Flu+RSV Test Home Collection Kit, approved by the FDA in 2022, checks for COVID-19 and flu viruses. You can purchase it in a store or online without a prescription. With this kit, you collect your own nasal fluid sample and send it to a lab for testing and results.

How much does an RSV test cost?

The cost of an RSV test performed by a healthcare professional varies. The at-home Pixel by Labcorp test kit costs $129. Health insurers may cover some or all of the cost of RSV tests.

What are the first signs of RSV?

The symptoms of RSV may begin to appear 4–6 days after a person is infected. They usually occur in stages rather than all at once.

The first symptoms may include:

Young infants may only have symptoms such as decreased activity and irritability. In severe cases, infants may have rapid, shallow breathing.

Although anyone can get RSV, most children contract it before age 2, and the symptoms are usually mild. Inbabies, however, RSV can cause bronchiolitis, pneumonia, or croup, which can lead to coughing and breathing difficulties.

There is currently no treatment for RSV, but vaccines may soon be available that protect infants from infection. An RSV test can differentiate RSV from other infections and help healthcare professionals determine the best treatment plan.