RSV Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

RSV is a common medical problem in the United States. The abbreviation RSV stands for the respiratory syncytial virus. The virus can cause respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 75,000 and 125,000 people in the United States are affected by RSV each year. The virus is especially dangerous for (young) children, and adults with a weakened immune system and/or over 65 years old. Therefore, how to recognize the virus and what to do if you suspect your loved one is infected with RSV is incredibly important.

Illustration of the lungs and bacteria. like RSV

What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

Respiratory syncytial virus is a common respiratory virus that affects the lungs, particularly the small airways known as bronchioles. It is usually a mild illness that causes cold-like symptoms in healthy children and adults and typically resolves on its own within a week. However, certain groups of people are at risk for more severe RSV infections, including children under 2, adults over 65, and those with compromised immune systems, chronic lung diseases, or congenital heart conditions. Severe RSV infections can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which may require hospitalization. Additionally, RSV can exacerbate existing heart and lung conditions.

How Contagious Is RSV?

RSV is highly contagious and is easily spread through close contact with an infected person. It is most contagious during the first few days or week of symptoms, but some babies and individuals with weakened immune systems may remain contagious for up to 4 weeks after their symptoms begin. The virus can be transmitted through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs, and it can enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. RSV can also survive on hard surfaces such as countertops and doorknobs, and it can be contracted by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the face or mouth.

Respiratory syncytial virus is common in young children, with most children contracting the virus before their second birthday. It often spreads easily among children in daycare or school settings due to close contact and shared toys. In the United States, RSV sends an estimated 58,000 children under the age of 5 to the hospital for treatment each year, and nearly 177,000 adults are hospitalized for the virus. RSV is also a leading cause of death in adults over 65, with an estimated 14,000 fatalities annually. Globally, it is estimated that RSV affects around 64 million people and causes 160,000 deaths.

Infographic about RSV symptoms

How Do Babies Get Infected with RSV?

Babies can contract the respiratory syncytial virus through close contact with an infected person or by touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching their mouth or nose. Some common ways that babies can get RSV to include being kissed by someone with the virus, coming into contact with an infected person’s saliva or mucus on an object or toy, and being in proximity to an infected person who coughs or sneezes. RSV can be particularly dangerous for premature infants, babies under 6 months old, and children with compromised immune systems.

Symptoms of RSV

Recognizing RSV can be difficult because the main symptoms are symptoms that occur with various respiratory diseases, think the flu, a severe cold, sinus infection, as well as COVID-19. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Congestion
  • Fatigue
  • (Mild) headache
  • Sore throat

Symptoms of RSV in Babies & Toddlers

The symptoms of the respiratory syncytial virus can vary in severity and presentation depending on the age group. Not all babies experience RSV symptoms like coughing and a runny nose. Symptoms in babies & toddlers include:

  • Fussiness or irritability
  • Decreased appetite
  • Minimal interest in activities
  • Trouble swallowing

Severe symptoms for children under the age of 2 include:

  • Noisy breathing
  • Flaring of nostrils with every breath.
  • Blue or gray color to their lips, mouth, and fingernails
  • Belly breathing or “caving in” of the chest
  • Changes in their breathing pattern
  • Pauses while breathing.

If you or your child are experiencing difficulty breathing, it is important to seek medical attention immediately by visiting the emergency room. If you have symptoms of the respiratory syncytial virus and are over the age of 65 or have a compromised immune system, a heart condition, or a lung condition, it is important to contact your healthcare provider. RSV can sometimes progress to a severe infection that requires treatment from a healthcare provider. It is important to take prompt action to address any potential respiratory issues.

Treatment Options

To diagnose RSV, a healthcare provider will review your medical history and assess your symptoms. They may perform a physical examination, including listening to your lungs with a stethoscope and checking your oxygen level with a pulse oximeter (a device that measures oxygen saturation in the blood using a sensor placed on the finger). They may also collect a sample of mucus from your nose or mouth using a cotton swab or take a blood sample to look for signs of infection. If the provider suspects a more severe illness, they may order additional blood or urine tests or imaging tests such as X-rays or CT scans to assess the condition of your lungs. After diagnosing RSV, the right treatment plan is set up. Options include:

  • Taking otc medications, like ibuprofen
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Not smoking or vaping
  • Use a mist vaporizer
  • Using saline nasal drops
  • Resting

If the RSV is severe, treatment options are also more invasive, and include:

  • Getting extra oxygen
  • Getting fluids via IV
  • Removing mucus from the airways
  • Antivirals to fight the virus

Is RSV preventable?

There are several ways to help prevent the spread of respiratory syncytial virus:

  • Cover your cough using a tissue or coughing into the fabric of your shirt instead of your hands.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Avoid close contact with others, especially those who have the virus.
  • Clean and sanitize frequently touched surfaces, objects, and toys.
  • Keep children home from school or daycare when they or other children are sick.
  • If you have a child at high risk for developing severe RSV, try to limit their time in large social settings during the RSV season.

For more information about respiratory syncytial virus, possible treatment options, and the difference between RSV and other respiratory infection, start your search here:

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