Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (also commonly referred to as RSV) is a viral infection that is extremely common. It affects the lungs as well as the rest of the respiratory tract. It can affect people of any age and any level of health.

In adults as well as healthy older children, respiratory syncytial virus is usually only a mild illness. However, for newborns, infants, young children, and people who may be sick or have a compromised immune system, it can cause more severe symptoms. Elderly people, especially if they have a heart condition or a lung condition may also get quite ill if exposed to respiratory syncytial virus.

This viral infection is extremely contagious and the virus can enter the body through the nose, eyes, or the mouth. It is most commonly spread through contact with infected fluids, namely from someone coughing or sneezing. This can be direct transmission, or through shaking hands with an ill person, kissing or hugging them, or coming into contact with an object that has been coughed or sneezed on.

What are the Symptoms of Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

When a healthy person contracts the respiratory syncytial virus, the symptoms they experience are often mild and resemble the symptoms of a common cold. These can include a cough, sneezing, a mild to moderate fever, a runny nose, and a reduction in appetite. Mild headaches can also occur as can a sore throat.

Infants are the most susceptible to severe symptoms associated with respiratory syncytial virus. When a young child contracts RSV, they may begin to act fussy, be less hungry or have trouble nursing, or lack in energy. Sometimes, this virus can cause a baby to start wheezing, breathe rapidly, or start to turn blue from a lack of oxygen. Because RSV can be life-threatening to young children, the elderly, or people with other health issues, hospitalization may be necessary in such cases.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Causes

Respiratory syncytial virus is caused by a type of virus that is especially prevalent among children and high-risk adult populations such as those who have compromised immune systems. Respiratory syncytial virus is spread through the transmission of infected droplets that are disseminated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus is also spread if a person has some of the virus on their hands and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.

Respiratory syncytial virus is not only an airborne virus. The virus is well able to live for many hours on both hard and soft surfaces.

This virus is highly contagious, and those who have the disease may spread the disease for over a week. Some people can even harbor the virus in their bodies for up to one month infecting those with whom they come into contact.

How is Respiratory Syncytial Virus Treated?

For a common respiratory syncytial virus infection in a healthy person, the infection will clear up on its own. Rest, plenty of fluids, and over-the-counter cough and pain medications can help with symptoms in the meantime. When a person has a severe RSV infection, IV fluids, oxygen therapy, nebulizer treatments, and the use of a ventilator may be necessary treatments.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Prevention

There is no vaccine currently on the market that is able to prevent respiratory syncytial virus. At this time, the best means of prevention are those one would use to help prevent any type of viral infection.

The first means of prevention is through avoidance. Stay away from those who are sneezing or coughing if at all possible. If there is an outbreak in a general area, try to avoid those places where large groups of people gather. This is especially true during the winter months when the virus is at its peak. Consider keeping children home from daycare if there is a possible outbreak at their center.

Sanitation of surfaces is very important. Thoroughly disinfect door knobs, counters, and tables.

Proper hand washing is essential for prevention. Hands should be washed often with soap and water.

For those who have poor immune systems, there is a drug that may help with prevention. Palivizumab started before cold and flu season may prevent RSV or lessen the severity of symptoms if the disease is contracted.

Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
June 08, 2018
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