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Q. What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)? What does RSV
A. RSV is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and
breathing passages. Although it can affect anyone, RSV is generally considered
as the most frequent cause of lower respiratory tract infections in infants and
young children. Each year an estimated 57,527 children younger than 5 years old
are hospitalized due to RSV infection in the United States.
Q. What are the symptoms of an RSV infection?
of RSV are similar to other respiratory infections. Illness begins 4 to 6 days
after being exposed to the virus. In adults and older children, typical RSV
symptoms include a low-grade fever, congested or runny nose, cough, sore throat,
headache, fatigue, and occasionally wheezing. In children younger than age 2,
RSV can cause a lower respiratory tract illness such as bronchiolitis or
pneumonia; more severe cases can result in respiratory failure. For people with
severe illness, symptoms may include a worsening croupy cough, unusually rapid
breathing, difficulty breathing, and a bluish color of the lips or fingernails
caused by low levels of oxygen in the blood. RSV can cause middle ear infections
(otitis media) in preschool children.
Q. How common is RSV?
A. RSV infections occur all over the
world, most often in outbreaks that can last up to 5 months, from late fall
through early spring. RSV epidemics spread easily in households, daycare
centers, and schools.
Q. Who is likely to get RSV?
A. Most children are infected
at least once by age 2 and continue to be reinfected throughout life. RSV is the
most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year
of age. The majority of children hospitalized for an RSV infection are under the
age of six months. The elderly (those 65 years of age and older), premature
infants, persons with chronic lung or heart problems, or persons with weak
immune systems are at higher risk for developing serious illness. Those who are
exposed to tobacco smoke, attend daycare, live in crowded conditions, or have
school-aged siblings could also be at higher risk.
Q. How is RSV spread?
A. The virus is found in discharges
from the nose and throat of an infected person. People can get RSV infection by
breathing in droplets after an infected person has coughed; by hand-to-mouth
contact after touching an infected person; and by hand-to-mouth after touching
a surface that an infected person has touched or coughed on. The time period
from exposure to illness is usually 4 to 6 days. After an infection, a person
may be contagious for 3 to 8 days. However, some infants and people with
weakened immune systems can spread the virus for up to 4 weeks.
Q. How can you prevent RSV?
A. There are steps that you can
take to prevent the spread of RSV. If you have cold-like symptoms:
- Cover your cough and sneezes with a tissue, sleeve, or elbow.
- Wash your hands often and correctly (with soap and water for 20 seconds).
- Avoid sharing cups and utensils with other people.
- Do not kiss other people.
- Clean contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops with a
Other steps that may be taken to the prevent the spread of RSV are:
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid exposure to sick persons, especially those that have cold-like
symptoms. If possible, parents with high-risk young infants should avoid crowds.
- Limit the time that high-risk children spend at their school or child-care
center during the RSV season.
Q. What do I do if I think anyone in my family has RSV?
Consult with your healthcare provider. Any breathing difficulties in an infant
should be considered an emergency, so seek immediate help.
Q. How are RSV infections diagnosed?
A. The diagnosis is
usually made by the pattern of a child's symptoms (a clinical diagnosis),
especially if he or she has a cold and is wheezing. RSV can be confirmed by
checking for the virus in nasopharyngeal specimens or by growing the virus from
nasal swabs, nasal washes, or tracheal secretions.
Q. How are RSV infections treated?
A. There is currently no
vaccine to prevent RSV infection. Researchers are working to develop RSV
vaccines. Because RSV infection is often resolved on its own, treatment of mild
symptoms is not necessary for most people. For babies and children who are at
high risk of developing severe RSV, preventive medication is available. Parents
of an infant who is premature, has a chronic lung or heart condition, or has a
weak immune system should contact their doctor or healthcare provider.
Antibiotics are not useful in the treatment of RSV or any other viral
Q. Should I worry about RSV when I travel out of the
A. RSV is common worldwide, but no additional precautions are
needed when traveling. The number of infections usually peaks in the late fall,
winter, and early spring in the United States and Europe. In tropical climates,
epidemics occur during the rainy season.