Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. Most otherwise healthy people recover from RSV infection in 1 to 2 weeks. Infection can be severe in some people, however, and infants born prematurely are particularly at risk – although babies born full term also contract the virus and can have complications or need to be hospitalized.

RSV spreads rapidly among children during outbreaks and most children will have been infected with the virus sometime before 2 years of age.

Causes & Risk Factors

RSV passes from person to person in the same way a cold virus does. When someone with RSV coughs or sneezes, tiny drops travel through the air to other people nearby or they land on surfaces that others will touch. The virus then enters the body through the eyes or nose after touching RSV germs.

Children born prematurely (less than 32 weeks), those who are immunocompromised or with chronic lung disease and/or significant congenital heart disease stand a greater chance of developing progressive complications from RSV.

Families can protect babies from RSV by keeping young babies at home as much possible. Encouraging family members to wash their hands carefully to prevent infecting themselves as well as the children is also advised. 

Symptoms & Types

RSV usually starts with cold-like symptoms. Problems develop when it spreads to children’s lower airways, attacking the linings of small airways connecting the bigger airways delivering oxygen to the lungs. This can lead to labored breathing and, sometimes, less color in a child’s cheeks. Infants and children infected with RSV usually show symptoms within 4 to 6 days of infection.

If you think your child has RSV but is eating and breathing normally, call your pediatrician or visit an urgent care clinic. But if breathing is becoming difficult for your child, seek more immediate care at an emergency center. 

Diagnosis & Tests

It is not always necessary to check for RSV. But, if your pediatrician deems it necessary, he/she can check for RSV with a nasal swab, the same swab used to test for the flu in most offices.

Treatment & Care

Most children will recover in 1 to 2 weeks. However, even after recovery, infants and children can continue to spread the virus for 1 to 3 weeks. Some children, with severe cases, may require an emergency room visit and rarely hospitalization.

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