Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): What is it? Risk Factors, Contagion, Symptoms, Signs, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prognosis

It is a common virus that causes respiratory tract infections in infants and young children.

Most children will get RSV infection on their second birthday because it is widespread and spreads quickly.

In otherwise healthy children, the virus usually causes a cold.

What are the causes and risk factors of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Risk factors for contracting respiratory syncytial virus include:

  • Babies and children in daycare or frequent public places like parks.
  • Having older siblings who become infected and spread the virus to younger siblings.
  • Sharing food contaminated with the virus.
  • Touching contaminated objects and not washing your hands before touching your face.
  • Older adults are living in nursing homes or other group settings.
  • Smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Patients with Down syndrome.
  • Live at an elevation greater than 8,200 feet.

Risk factors for getting a severe RSV infection include:

  • Premature babies are born before 35 weeks.
  • Babies 8-10 weeks and under.
  • Children under two years of age are born with heart or lung disease.
  • Infants and young children with weakened immune systems due to illness or medical treatment.
  • Infants and children with underlying lung disease or congenital heart disease.
  • Asthma patients.
  • Older adults with chronic lung disease or functional disability.

Is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) contagious?

The respiratory syncytial virus is highly contagious and is transmitted from person to person. When someone with the virus coughs, sneezes, or even talks, the virus in their saliva or mucus spreads.

How is a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) transmitted?

A person can contract RSV from close contact with an infected person because the virus can live on hard surfaces (such as doorknobs or tables). The infection can occur when someone touches an object contaminated by an infected person and then touches themselves—mouth, nose, or eyes without first washing their hands.


Transmission of RSV can also occur if an adult kisses an infected child on the face.

New research has also found that RSV can be passed from a pregnant mother to her fetus. The virus appears to be able to spread from the mother’s respiratory tract through the placenta to the fetus’s lungs.

RSV can be present in the lungs after birth and could be responsible for some cases of asthma.

How long is a person contagious with a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

People with RSV are usually contagious for three to eight days.

What is the incubation period for the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

An incubation period refers to the amount of time from when someone is exposed to RSV for the first time until they develop symptoms.

The incubation period for RSV is two to eight days, but the illness usually begins four to six days after exposure to the virus.

What are the symptoms and signs of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

The signs and symptoms of RSV include cold-like symptoms, such as:

  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Tos.
  • Sneezing
  • Fever.
  • Wheezing
  • Throat pain.
  • Earache.

Babies may have different or additional symptoms, including:

  • Irritability.
  • Decreased activity.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Breathing difficulties ( apnea ).
  • Inappetence.

Important note: It is also possible for a child to have RSV without a fever.

When should someone seek medical care for the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

For most healthy children who have symptoms of an upper respiratory infection (cough, runny, or stuffy nose), home care is usually sufficient.

If your child has any risk factors for a more severe infection or if symptoms get worse, see a doctor.

Contact the pediatrician if your child shows any of the following symptoms:

  • Labored breathing
  • Fever above 101 F.
  • Coughing up yellow, green, or gray phlegm (mucus).
  • You have cold symptoms that become severe.
  • You lack appetite.
  • Dehydration (lack of tears when crying, dry mouth, little or no urine in the diaper for six hours, cold and dry skin).

Go to a hospital emergency department or call 911 if your baby is lethargic, has trouble breathing, is breathing very quickly, or has a blue tint to the lips or nails.

What specialists treat respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Medical professionals who can diagnose and treat RSV include:

  • Primary care providers have a child’s pediatrician, family doctor, or general practitioner.
  • Infectious disease doctors.
  • Emergency medicine specialist.

What tests and procedures diagnose respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

A clinical and physical history to assess symptoms may be all that is done when a respiratory syncytial virus is suspected.

If a patient has symptoms of a common cold, there are usually no tests that need to be done. In people with an increased risk of severe infection, a viral screening test may be ordered to make a diagnosis.

This lab test looks at nasal drainage and can help determine if RSV is present to take steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

If RSV symptoms worsen or if complications such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis are suspected, tests may be done, including:

  • Chest x-ray to check for pneumonia.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests to look for signs of a bacterial infection and make sure babies are well hydrated. Blood and urine cultures may be needed when babies are very sick (in very young babies, RSV-related bronchiolitis can occur with a urinary tract infection)
  • Oximetry (measurement of oxygen levels in the blood through a device placed on the patient’s finger).

What is the diagnosis and treatment of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Mild RSV infections usually affect the upper respiratory tract (nose, throat). Mild RSV infection symptoms are the same as a common cold, and tests are generally not required to diagnose the infection.

Sometimes RSV affects the lower respiratory tract and causes bronchiolitis or pneumonia. The diagnosis is generally made based on medical history and a physical examination.

Your doctor may suspect RSV-related bronchiolitis during periods of RSV outbreaks in the community. Although the disease can occur at any time, it is much more likely during the year’s cold months.

However, the exact timing of the RSV season differs between different country regions. CDC tracks regional trends from the RSV census.

In severe cases of RSV that require hospitalization, specific tests to detect the virus are helpful so that the patient can be adequately isolated and the infection is not transmitted to others.

There are currently several test methods that can give reliable results in a few hours. The test is done on a small amount of discharge from the nose.

People who develop a severe infection require additional testing to ensure no other complications.

How is RSV treated?

Mild RSV infections do not require any specific treatment other than over-the-counter medications to help with symptoms and control fever with acetaminophen.

Removing mucus from the nose with a bulb syringe can temporarily improve babies’ breathing. It is often done just before meals so that babies can drink more easily.

Various treatments can be used in more severe illnesses. None of them treat the infection itself but rather treat the symptoms and prevent complications.

These may include:

Hydration – Babies, especially very young ones, can quickly become dehydrated. It would help if you continued breast or bottle feeding at home but may need to be given in small amounts frequently.

If a baby cannot drink, they may need to go to the hospital for an IV (intravenous hydration) or feeding tube. Hydration can also be recommended in adults.

Oxygen: hypoxemia (low oxygen levels) is one of the typical symptoms associated with RSV bronchiolitis.

The oxygen delivered through small tips through the nostrils not only provides the necessary oxygen but also reduces the work that the patient has to do to breathe and prevents fatigue of the respiratory muscles.

What are the home remedies for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Home remedies that help relieve RSV symptoms include the following:

  • Drink plenty of fluids (in babies, make sure they are breastfeeding or nursing).
  • Use a humidifier to keep the air moist.
  • Saline nasal drops help keep your nasal passages lubricated.
  • Elevate the head of the bed to help drain nasal secretions.
  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Ibuprofen should not be used by children under six months of age. Do not give aspirin to children or teenagers, as it could cause Reye’s syndrome.
  • Get the children plenty of rest.
  • Keep children away from secondhand smoke.

What is the prognosis for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

The prognosis for the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is good. Almost all children are infected with RSV within two years, and most symptoms resolve within two to eight days.

Even in children who need to be hospitalized, the hospital stay is short, and full recovery occurs within a week or two. RSV infection can recur later in life, but it is usually mild and often difficult to distinguish from a cold.

RSV can cause worsening symptoms in children with chronic respiratory diseases, and children with congenital heart disease can have more severe symptoms.

Complications of RSV include pneumonia, bronchiolitis, croup, and ear infections. In rare and severe cases, RSV can lead to lung failure.

How to manage and prevent RSV?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent RSV.

RSV is an infection from which healthy patients are expected to recover fully. However, it can be severe, life-threatening, or even fatal among the sickest patients.

What to expect

It takes 2 to 8 days from exposure to the time the person becomes ill.

Then the illness lasts from 3 to 7 days. Recovery time varies depending on the severity of the disease and the general health of the patient.

People are contagious for about 3 to 8 days. However, some people (such as those with weakened immune systems) can be contagious for several weeks.

RSV is highly contagious. It is essential to prevent its spread to others. Other more effective means of protection are some of the simplest, such as:

  • Avoid close contact (e.g., kissing) with infected people;
  • Avoid sharing cups, bottles, or toys that may have been contaminated with the virus (it can live on surfaces for several hours); Y
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds after contact with an infected person.
  • High-risk patients can receive monthly injections with the drug palivizumab, which prevents the development of severe RSV disease but has no effect after the disease has started.

Long-term effects

During the first six months (and especially the first three months) of life, RSV infection can lead to wheezing and asthma later in life. The exact reason is not known, but there may be a genetic predisposition.

Bottom line

  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that can cause colds and pneumonia.
  • Most children will get RSV infections when they are two years old.
  • RSV is highly contagious and is easily transmitted from person to person.
  • RSV can also survive on hard surfaces (such as doorknobs or tables). Infection can occur when someone touches an object contaminated by an infected person and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes without first washing their hands.
  • Transmission of RSV can also be transmitted from babies to adults if an adult kisses an infected child on the face.
  • The signs and symptoms of RSV include a runny or stuffy nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, wheezing, sore throat, and earache.
  • There is no specific treatment for the respiratory syncytial virus. For mild to moderate infections, home care is usually all that is needed.
  • Home remedies to help relieve RSV symptoms include drinking plenty of fluids, using a humidifier, saline nasal drops, rest, and over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • The prognosis for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is good. Most people make a full recovery in two to eight days.
  • Complications of RSV include pneumonia, bronchiolitis, croup, and ear infections.
  • The respiratory syncytial virus can be prevented with regular hand washing hygiene that is followed to avoid the common cold.