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What is Respiratory Synctial Virus (RSV) Infection?

Baby in hospital bed
Posted at 12:04 PM, Jun 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-11 12:06:33-04

TAMPA, Fla. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) health advisory on the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) issued Friday brings the focus to a disease that many may not have familiarity with. But the disease can be especially dangerous for infants and older adults.

What is RSV?

According to the CDC, Respiratory syncytial virus is a common respiratory virus that usually causes “mild, cold-like symptoms.” It’s also the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Symptoms of RSV usually begin to appear within four to six days after initial infection and include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • The CDC said the symptoms typically appear in stages and not all at once. In young infants, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties.

How is RSV spread?

RSV is an airborne pathogen and can also spread in other ways. It can spread when:

  • An infected person coughs or sneezes
  • You get virus droplets form a cough or sneeze in your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • You touch a surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touch your face before washing your hands
  • You have direct contact with the virus, like kissing the face of a child with RSV
  • How long is someone contagious with RSV?
  • People who have RSV typically are contagious for three to eight days. But, some infants and people with weakened immune systems can continue to spread the virus for as long as four weeks. RSV can also survive for hours on hard surfaces such as tables and crib rails.

Who is at the highest risk of severe RSV infection?

The CDC said infants/young children and older adults are the most vulnerable to the virus and most likely to get serious complications if they become ill.

Among infants/children most at risk:

  • Premature infants
  • Very young infants, especially those 6 months and younger
  • Children younger than 2 years old with chronic lung disease or congenital (present from birth) heart disease
  • Children with weakened immune systems
  • Children who have neuromuscular disorders, including those who have difficulty swallowing or clearing mucus secretions

Among older adults, the most at risk for severe RSV infection:

  • Older adults, especially those 65 years and older
  • Adults with chronic heart or lung disease
  • Adults with weakened immune systems

What diseases can RSV cause?

  • In children, RSV can cause bronchiolitis (inflammation of the airways in the lung) and/or pneumonia (infection of the lungs).
  • In older adults, the CDC said RSV can cause pneumonia, severe symptoms for people with asthma, severe symptoms for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and severe symptoms for those with congestive heart failure.

How can you prevent RSV?

RSV is typically seasonal during fall, winter, and spring, but can appear at any time. The CDC gives the following steps to try to avoid catching or spreading RSV to infants/young children and older adults.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Keep your hands off your face
  • Avoid close contact with sick people
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces
  • Stay home when you are sick

For more on RSV from the CDC, click here.