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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): Symptoms, Transmission, Prevention

Published: 2015/08/18 - Updated: 2021/08/05
Author: Thomas C. Weiss - Contact: Contact Details
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Synopsis: Information regarding Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) a virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. Medical researchers are working to develop RSV vaccines, although none is available at this time. There are steps; however, that may be taken to help prevent the spread of RSV. Children who need particular attention include premature infants, children with weakened immune systems, as well as children younger than two years of age with chronic heart or lung conditions.


Main Digest

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a form of respiratory virus that infects a person's lungs and their breathing passages. Healthy people commonly experience mild, cold-like symptoms and recover within a week or two. Yet RSV may be serious, especially for infants and seniors. In fact, RSV is the most common cause of, 'bronchiolitis,' or inflammation of the small airways in the lung and pneumonia in children who are younger than one year of age in America. RSV is also being recognized more often as a significant cause of respiratory illness in seniors. RSV is a major cause of lower respiratory tract infections and hospital visits during infancy and childhood. RSV is a negative-sense, single-stranded RNA virus of the family Paramyxoviridae, which includes common respiratory viruses such as those causing measles and mumps.

RSV Infection and Incidence

Nearly all children will experience an RSV infection by their second birthday. When infants and children are exposed to RSV for the first time:

Infants and children infected with RSV commonly present with symptoms within 4-6 days of infection. The majority of them will recover in a week or two; however, even following recovery, very young infants and children with weakened immune systems may continue to spread the virus for a period of 1-3 weeks.

People of any age may get another RSV infection, although infections later in life are usually less severe. Premature infants, children who are younger than two years of age with chronic lung or congenital heart disease, as well as children with compromised immune systems due to a medical condition or treatment are at the greatest risk for severe disease. Adults with compromised immune systems and people who are over the age of 65 are also at increased risk of severe disease.

In America and other areas with similar climates, RSV infections usually happen during Fall, Winter and Spring. The timing and severity of RSV circulation in a community may vary from year to year.

RSV Symptoms and Care

The symptoms of an RSV infection are similar to other forms of respiratory infections. Illness commonly starts 4-6 days following exposure, with a runny nose and a decrease in the person's appetite. Sneezing, coughing and fever usually develop 1-3 days later. The affected person may wheeze as they breath. In very young infants irritability, breathing difficulties and decreased activity might be the only symptoms of the infection. Most otherwise healthy infants infected with RSV do not need to stay in the hospital. In most instances, even among people who need to be hospitalized, the hospitalization usually only lasts a few days and the person fully recovers within a period of one to two weeks.

Visits to a medical professional for an RSV infection is very common. During a visit to a medical professional, the professional will assess the severity of disease in order to determine if the person should be hospitalized. In most severe instances of RSV, infants might need supplemental oxygen, suctioning of mucus from their airways, or even intubation with mechanical ventilation. There is no specific treatment for an RSV infection.

Transmission of RSV

People with an RSV infection are usually contagious for a period of 3-8 days. Some infants and people with weakened immune systems; however, may be contagious for as long as 4 weeks. Children are often times exposed to and infected with RSV outside of their homes, such as in childcare or school. They may then transmit the virus to other members of their family, or their friends.

RSV may be spread when a person who is infected sneezes or coughs into the air, creating virus-containing droplets that may linger for a period of time in the air. Other people can become infected if the droplet particles contact their mouth, nose, or eye. Infection may also result from either direct or indirect contact with oral or nasal secretions from an infected person.

Direct contact with the virus can happen; for example, by kissing the face of a child who has RSV. Indirect contact can happen if the virus gets on an environmental surfaces such as a doorknob, which is then touched by others. Direct and indirect transmissions of RSV usually happens when people touch an infectious secretion and then rub their nose or eyes.

RSV has the ability to survive on hard surfaces such as crib rails or tables for a number of hours. RSV commonly lives on soft surfaces such as hands and tissues for shorter periods of time.

Preventing RSV Infection

Medical researchers are working to develop RSV vaccines, although none is available at this time. There are steps; however, that may be taken to help prevent the spread of RSV. People who have cold-like symptoms should:

Parents need to pay particular attention to protecting children at high risk for developing severe RSV disease. The children who need particular attention include premature infants, children with weakened immune systems, as well as children younger than two years of age with chronic heart or lung conditions.

Ideally, people with cold-like symptoms should not interact with children at high risk for severe disease. If this is not possible, they should carefully follow the prevention steps mentioned and wash their hands prior to interacting with children at high risk. They should also refrain from kissing high-risk children while they have symptoms of RSV. When possible, limiting the time that high-risk children spend in childcare centers, or other potentially contagious settings might help to prevent infection and spread of the virus during the RSV season.

A medication called, 'palivizumab,' is available to prevent severe RSV illness in some infants and children who are at high risk. The medication may help to prevent development of serious RSV disease, although it cannot help, cure, or treat children who are already experiencing serious RSV disease. It also cannot prevent infection with RSV. If your child is at high risk for severe RSV disease, contact your medical professional to find out if the medication may be used as a preventative measure.


In the United States, 60% of infants are infected during their first RSV season, and nearly all children will have been infected with the virus by 2 to 3 years of age. Each year, on average, in the U.S., RSV leads to:

In the United States and other areas with similar climates, RSV infections occur primarily during fall, winter, and spring.

Author Credentials:

Thomas C. Weiss is a researcher and editor for Disabled World. Thomas attended college and university courses earning a Masters, Bachelors and two Associate degrees, as well as pursing Disability Studies. As a Nursing Assistant Thomas has assisted people from a variety of racial, religious, gender, class, and age groups by providing care for people with all forms of disabilities from Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson's; para and quadriplegia to Spina Bifida.

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Cite This Page (APA): Thomas C. Weiss. (2015, August 18). Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): Symptoms, Transmission, Prevention. Disabled World. Retrieved October 4, 2023 from

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