Facts About Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Dr. M. Vijayalakshmi, M.D (Peds), M.D (USA), F.A.A.P

"AllForKids Pediatric and Adolescent Clinic"

Content Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, Medical Journals


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of  bronchiolitis and pneumonia among infants and children under 1 year of age. Illness begins most frequently with fever, runny nose, cough, and sometimes wheezing. During their first RSV infection, between 25% and 40% of infants and young children have signs or symptoms of bronchiolitis or pneumonia, and 0.5% to 2% require hospitalization. Each year about 125,000children are hospitalized in the United States with RSV infection, and approximately 500 of these children will die.


Most children recover from illness in 8 to 15 days. The majority of children hospitalized for RSV infection are under 6 months of age. RSV also causes repeated infections throughout life, usually associated with moderate-to-severe cold-like symptoms; however, severe lower respiratory tract disease may occur at any age, especially among the elderly or among those with compromised cardiac, pulmonary, or immune systems.


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infects almost all children at least once before they are 2 years old. Most of the time this virus only causes minor coldlike symptoms. However,for some basics infection can be more dangerous.
For certain infants  who are extremely preterm (infants born before 32 weeks of pregnancy) or who are born with severe lung disease, RSV infection can be especially serious. Preterm infants often have underdeveloped lungs and may have difficulty fighting an RSV infection once they become infected.


Who is at Risk?

Infants born prematurely and terms infants younger than 6 weeks of age are at increased risk for developing serious RSV infection.
Young children with medical conditions, such as chronic lung disease, serious heart conditions, or problems with their immune system, including problems due to cancer or organ transplant, also are at risk.


Spread of RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus infection occurs most often from November to April, although there may be seasonal variation by region. Respiratory syncytial virus occurs only in humans and is highly contagious. The virus can live for several hours on a surface such as a countertop, table, or playpen, or on unwashed hands. Respiratory syncytial virus is spread by direct or close physical contact, which includes touching or kissing an infected person, or contact with a contaminated surface.

Symptoms of RSV

For most healthy children the symptoms of RSV resemble the common cold and include

  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Low-grade fever

However, signs of more serious infection may include

  • Difficult or rapid breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Poor appetite


How can a child be protected from RSV?

There are important steps you can take to prevent exposure to RSV and other viruses, especially in the first few months of your child’s life. These precautions include

  • Make sure everyone washes their hands before touching your baby.
  • Keep your baby away from anyone who has a cold, fever, or runny nose.
  • Keep your baby away from crowded areas like shopping places
  • Keep your baby away from cigarette smoke. Parents should not expose their infants and young children to secondhand tobacco smoke, which increases the risk of and complications from severe viral respiratory infections.
  • For high-risk infants, participation in child care should be restricted during RSV season whenever possible.
  • All high-risk infants and their contacts should be immunized against influenza beginning at 6 months of age.

They are medications that your pediatrician may prescribe that could reduce the risk of developing serious RSV infection. These medications are used only for the small number of babies who are in the highest risk groups for hospitalization. The American Academy of Pediatrics has developed specific criteria for use of these medications. You should consult with your pediatrician regarding specific details on who is at highest risk and which high-risk infants are most likely to benefit from receipt of these medications.


How is RSV infection treated?

Most case of RSV infection are mild and disappear on their own within 5 to 7 days. However, if your baby is experiencing severe respiratory symptoms, your pediatrician may use a nasal secretion test to determine the cause of the infection. If your child needs to be hospitalized, your pediatrician will discuss the best management for your child.

Call your pediatrician right away if your infant shows any of the signs of serious RSV infection. Prompt supportive treatment is especially important if your child is at high risk for developing serious RSV infection.