Learning About Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Learning About Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
November 16, 2022 Sue Riordan
Understanding Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

With cases of RSV on the rise, you may have questions about how to stay healthy and protect your family. To help you learn about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), including symptoms and who’s at highest risk, we’ve compiled tips on what you need to know.

What is RSV?

RSV is a respiratory virus, causing mild cold-like symptoms. Typically, most adults can recover from the illness in a week or two. However, RSV can be more serious for older adults and children. It can be especially dangerous for infants and those under the age of one.

Some recent statistics

Each year, many young children and older adults are hospitalized due to RSV. According to the CDC, RSV leads to approximately:

    • 58,000 hospitalizations among children younger than five years old1.
    • 177,000 hospitalizations among adults 65 years and older2.

In addition, there’s typically a large spike of outpatient doctor visits, as well. And in some cases, RSV can even be fatal.

How is RSV transmitted?

RSV mainly spreads through:

    • Coughs or sneezes.
    • Direct contact with the virus, such as kissing the face of a child with RSV.
    • Touching a surface with the virus (like a doorknob) and then touching your face, including your eyes, nose or mouth.
What symptoms should you look for?

People usually show signs of RSV within four to six days after becoming infected. Symptoms also tend to appear in stages, instead of all at once.

Here are common ones to look for:

    • Runny nose
    • Decrease in appetite
    • Coughing
    • Sneezing
    • Fever
    • Wheezing

In very young infants with RSV, they’ll sometimes only show irritability, breathing difficulties and lower activity and appetite.

Who is at high risk for RSV?

RSV can be especially dangerous for some infants, young children and certain adults.

In children, those at greatest risk for severe illness include:

    • Premature infants.
    • Very young infants, especially those six months and younger.
    • Children younger than two years old with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease (present from birth).
    • Children with weakened immune systems.
    • Children who have neuromuscular disorders, including those who have a tough time swallowing or clearing mucus.

In adults, those at highest risk for severe RSV infection include:

    • Older adults, especially 65 years and older.
    • Adults with chronic heart or lung disease.
    • Adults with weakened immune systems, such as transplant patients, those undergoing chemotherapy, or those on medications that weaken the immune system.
Caring for RSV

Though there isn’t a specific treatment for RSV, you can take some steps to feel better. If you’re caring for RSV, you can try:

    • Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to manage pain and fever.
    • Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Additionally, it’s important to talk to your health care provider before giving cold medicines to children. Some contain ingredients that aren’t good for them. Aspirin should also be avoided for children.

How can you prevent RSV?

To help prevent the spread of RSV, here are some tips you can practice:

    • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your shirt sleeve.
    • Wash your hands often, using soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
    • Avoid close contact—such as kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups and eating utensils—with others, if you have cold-like symptoms.
    • Clean and disinfect frequently-used surfaces, such as doorknobs and mobile devices

Ideally, when you’re under the weather, it’s best to avoid contact with infants and others who may be at higher risk for RSV.

Extra steps for parents

Parents can also help their children limit the risk for developing severe RSV by:

    • Avoiding close contact with anyone who may be sick.
    • Washing children’s hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
    • Avoiding touching your child’s face with unwashed hands.
    • Limiting time children spend in in child-care centers or other potentially contagious settings, especially during fall, winter, and spring.

With these tips in mind, you can have a better understanding of RSV and how to protect those around you this season!


1, 2 www.cdc.gov/rsv/research/index.html