Scanning electron micrograph of human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), colorized in Halloween-appropriate colors. Virions (colorized gold) are labeled with anti-RSV F protein/gold antibodies (colorized yellow) shedding from the surface of human lung epithelial A549 cells.
Respiratory syncytial virus is a common pathogen that causes infection of the lungs and respiratory tract — more common in children than in adults.
The infection is so common that nearly all children have had it by the age of 2. In most cases, the virus causes mild cold- or flu-like symptoms such as a runny nose, mild fever, or a sore throat.
However, the infection can be dangerous in some infants and children — with an estimated 58,000-80,000 children under the age of 5 being hospitalized due to a serious RSV infection every year. Such infections can cause more serious complications, like bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
The respiratory syncytial virus is a common winter virus that can enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth — and can spread from person to person.
RSV is typically transmitted by:
People infected with RSV are contagious for 3 to 8 days, typically becoming contagious a day or two before showing symptoms. You can also get infected more than once.
Symptoms of RSV typically appear within 4 to 6 days, with most mild infections lasting a week or two. It is an infection of the respiratory tract.
Common symptoms of a mild infection include:
Severe symptoms in infants include:
In addition, infants and toddlers can get fussy or irritable, experience a decreased appetite, and show changes in their breathing patterns.
Young children have a more difficult time coping with the infection since their immune systems are still developing, and congestion can cause them to grow irritable.
People at an increased risk of severe RSV infections include:
It is also possible to get infected again and during the same season. Repeat infections can be more taxing on the immune system, and can cause a serious infection in infants, older adults, or people with chronic heart or lung disease.
RSV can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be similar to other respiratory viruses, such as the flu and COVID-19. In case of a mild infection, however, lab tests are considered unnecessary.
Treatment: Mild RSV infections go away in a week or two without treatment, but supportive care can ease the symptoms.
Prevention: RSV is highly contagious, and spreads when people touch contaminated surfaces or through respiratory droplets — making it tough to avoid. Disinfecting surfaces and avoiding close contact with others who are sick can help.
The CDC recommends two ways to protect children from severe RSV infections — a preventative antibody or a vaccination received during pregnancy. Adults 60 years or older are recommended to get an RSV vaccination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends several different vaccines that protect children and older adults from severe infection.
Any decisions made about vaccinations should first be discussed with your healthcare provider.