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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious virus that is the leading cause of infection in the respiratory tract, particularly the lungs.RSV... Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

by Kimberly Allen, RN

The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious virus that is the leading cause of infection in the respiratory tract, particularly the lungs.RSV is a seasonal virus that is most common during the winter months and can spread very quickly through schools and childcare centers.  Experts estimate that at least 60% of infants in the US will become infected with RSV in their first year.  They also believe that by the age of 2 nearly all children will have been infected with RSV at least once.  In the US between up to 125,000 infants under 1 year of age infected with RSV will develop complications and require hospitalization, of those as many as 1,500 will die from their illness.  Though it is most noticeable in young children it also infects older children, teens and adults though it is usually less severe in these groups.  However, in the elderly and those with chronic health issues are at risk fo more serious illness and complications.

RSV is spread like many other viruses through the tiny droplets of moisture that is in the air you exhale.  These droplets land on anything and everything in the area where the infected person
breathes, sneezes, or coughs.  That includes toy’s, door knobs, counter tops etc.  And lets not forget about the hands.  The RSV can live for over a half hour on hands or up to five hours on objects like toys and countertops.  So if you or your child touches an object that has been contaminated with the RSV and then touch his/her face the virus will enter their body through their eyes, nose and/or mouth.

Once infected your child is most contagious during the first few days after becoming infected which is before symptoms appear therefore many RSV infections become epidemics. The symptoms of an RSV infection usually develop 4-6 days after being exposed to the virus.  Adults and older children/teens usually develop symptoms similar to a cold with a stuffed up or runny nose, sore throat and dry cough as well as a low grade fever and mild headache.

Young children and infants are more severely affected by an RSV infection and many have a high fever and more difficulty breathing. Their breathing tends to be shallower, shorter and rapid.  Many young children and infants are irritable, lethargic and tend to eat poorly. If the infection is severe they may also have some wheezing as well as a bluish tint to their skin from a lack of oxygen.

Most adults and children are able to recover from an RSV infection in a week or two, however , infants, both full term and preterm, as well as adults with chronic heart and lung conditions the illness can be severe enough to require hospitalization.  Because RSV is a viral infection it can not be treated with antibiotics.  There is also no vaccine currently available though researchers continue to work on developing one.  This means treatment for RSV revolves around symptom management.  Use of acetominaphen for comfort and to reduce fever.

Never give children products containing aspirin.  It’s very important to read labels as there are many products on the market containing aspirin that you would not know containn aspirin without reading the label.  It’s particularly important to give children water or something like pedialyte to replace thefluids lost through vomiting, diarrhea, and/or fever.  Infants can become dehydrated very quickly and need to be watched closely for signs and/or symptoms of dehydration.  Those with more severe infections may need oxygen therapy as well as aerosol treatments with virazole to improve lung function.

The best way to prevent an RSV infection is frequent handwashing and use of hand sanitizers.  Do not share drinking glasses or utensils with others.  Clean counter tops and toys etc with a disinfectant regularly.  Always cough and/or sneeze into the crook of your elbow and teach children to do the same.

Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at