Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It's so common that most children have been infected with the virus by age 2. Respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-ul) virus can also infect adults.

In adults and older, healthy children, RSV symptoms are mild and typically mimic the common cold. Self-care measures are usually all that's needed to relieve any discomfort.


RSV can cause severe infection in some people, especially premature babies, older adults, infants and adults with heart and lung disease, or anyone with a very weak immune system (immunocompromised).


Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus infection most commonly appear about four to six days after exposure to the virus. In adults and older children, RSV usually causes mild cold-like signs and symptoms. These include:

  • Congested or runny nose

  • Dry cough

  • Low-grade fever

  • Sore throat

  • Mild headache

In severe cases

Respiratory syncytial virus infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis — inflammation of the small airway passages entering the lungs. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fever

  • Severe cough

  • Wheezing — a high-pitched noise that's usually heard on breathing out (exhaling)

  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing — the child may prefer to sit up rather than lie down

  • Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen (cyanosis)

Infants are most severely affected by RSV. You may notice your child's chest muscles and skin pull inward with each breath. This is a sign that he or she is struggling to breathe. Other signs and symptoms of severe RSV infection in infants include:

  • Short, shallow and rapid breathing

  • Cough

  • Poor feeding

  • Unusual tiredness (lethargy)

  • Irritability

Most children and adults recover in one to two weeks, although some might have repeated wheezing. Severe or life-threatening infection requiring a hospital stay may occur in premature babies or infants and adults who have chronic heart or lung problems.


When to see a doctor

Seek immediate medical attention if your child — or anyone at risk of severe RSV infection — has difficulty breathing, a high fever, or a blue color to the skin, particularly on the lips and in the nail beds.


Prevention

No vaccine exists for respiratory syncytial virus.

But common-sense precautions can help prevent the spread of this infection:

  • Wash your hands frequently. Teach your children the importance of hand-washing.

  • Avoid exposure. Limit your infant's contact with people who have fevers or colds. This is especially important if your baby is premature and during any baby's first two months of life.

  • Keep things clean. Make sure kitchen and bathroom countertops are clean. Discard used tissues right away.

  • Don't share drinking glasses with others. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or someone else is sick. Label each person's cup.

  • Don't smoke. Infants who are exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of getting RSV and potentially more-severe symptoms. If you do smoke, never do so inside the house or car.

  • Wash toys regularly. Do this especially when your child or a playmate is sick.

Protective medication

The medication palivizumab (Synagis) can help protect certain children who are at high risk of serious complications of RSV. The medication is recommended for infants under age 1 who were born prematurely (before 29 weeks gestation). It's not recommended for healthy preemies born after 29 weeks.


The medication is also recommended for the following children:

  • Premature infants with chronic lung disease

  • Certain infants younger than 12 months old with congenital heart disease

  • Babies and toddlers under age 2 who needed at least a month of supplemental oxygen at birth and continue to require lung-related treatments

  • Children age 2 and younger who may be immunocompromised during RSV season

The medication is given monthly for five months during peak RSV season. It only helps prevent RSV infection. It doesn't help treat it once symptoms develop.

Scientists are working to find a nasal-spray vaccine to protect against the respiratory syncytial virus.

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