RSV Symptoms

What is RSV? Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

What is RSV?

RSV or respiratory syncytial virus is a common virus that usually affects the respiratory tract. It can cause colds in adults and older children, but may cause serious lung infections, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis in babies and immunocompromised individuals. 


RSV is only transmitted between humans. The virus is spread when an infected individual sneezes or coughs. RSV enters the body through another person's mouth, nose, or eyes (happens when people rub their eyes using their hand that is contaminated with infected secretions). The virus has the ability to survive for several hours on infected surfaces, such as countertops, crib rails, toys, and other hard objects. It also survives in a person's hands for at least 30 minutes. Individuals infected with RSV are quite contagious during the first few days of acquiring the infection. RSV infections commonly occur during the seasons of winter and early spring. 


When it comes to older children, the symptoms of RSV are quite similar to that of a cold. However, the virus can cause severe symptoms in young babies. After being exposed to the virus, it can take anywhere between 2-8 days for the symptoms to show up. Initially, the symptoms may include a loss of appetite and a runny nose. After 1-3 days, other symptoms usually appear, which include:

  • Coughing, sneezing, or both
  • Feeling feverish
  • Easily irritated 
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Wheezing 
  • Chest caving in when breathing
  • Labored breathing
  • Lethargy or sluggishness
  • Barking cough 

Infants are more prone to RSV infections, especially those who are prematurely born or those have a congenital heart or lung defect. The symptoms of RSV usually range from mild cold symptoms to severe bronchiolitis. Seek immediate medical help if your baby shows the following signs and symptoms:

  • Coughing up thick mucus that is greenish, yellowish, or gray in color
  • Thick nasal discharge, which would make it tough for the baby to breathe
  • Signs of dehydration (sunken fontanelles or the absence of tears when crying)
  • Fever or a rise in body temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit in babies younger than 2 months old
  • Fever in babies who are 3-6 months old with a body temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit and above
  • Fever in babies who are above 6 months old with a body temperature greater than 103 degrees Fahrenheit

Seek emergency medical attention if the baby's fingernails or complexion turns blue in color since it indicates that the baby is not getting enough oxygen in the blood. 

Risk Factors

  • Babies who are younger than 6 months
  • Immunocompromised children and adults (those who have leukemia or HIV/AIDS)
  • Premature babies
  • Children born with heart or lung disease
  • Living in crowded places
  • Children who attend daycare
  • Adults who have asthma, COPD, or heart failure


  • Asthma: There is a certain link between severe RSV infections in small children and the chances of developing asthma later in life.
  • Severe breathing issues: Individuals with severe RSV infections must be hospitalized for close-monitoring and prompt treatment. 
  • Recurring infections: Once individuals get RSV, then it becomes common for the infection to come and go. However, the symptoms are milder in subsequent infections. Recurring infections are also possible in the same RSV season. Children who are older than 2 years old and infected with RSV do not usually develop bronchiolitis.
  • Otitis media (middle ear infection): If RSV enters the space behind the eardrum, then there is a possibility that the individual may also suffer from otitis media or middle ear infection. This condition is known to be a common occurrence in infants and young children.
  • Pneumonia: RSV is often seen as a common cause of pneumonia or bronchiolitis in infants. These lung infections mostly occur when RSV starts to spread to the lower respiratory tract. In the case of infants, lung infections can turn out to be quite serious. The same is the case with young children, individuals suffering from chronic heart conditions or lung issues, and those who have a weakened immune system. 


Most of the time, RSV infections resolve on their own within 1-2 weeks. Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, are usually taken to reduce fever and manage pain. Moreover, adults and young children with an RSV infection should have enough fluids to avoid being dehydrated.

To prevent dehydration in babies with RSV infection, make sure that they are given fluids, which include breast milk or formula milk. Doctors may also prescribe an oral rehydration solution to keep your baby hydrated. 

The baby should also be in an upright position to help him or her breathe better. At nighttime, you can elevate your child's mattress around 3 inches high or keep your baby upright in the car seat at daytime. Moreover, keep your baby away from second-hand smoke to avoid worsening the condition. 

Hospitalization is not usually necessary unless the infants are below 6 months old and adults experience dehydration or breathing difficulties. In such cases, a hospital admission may last for a few days to a week. Healthcare providers usually evaluate individuals with RSV infections if they need to be hospitalized or not. In severe RSV infections, patients may require oxygen therapy or intubation with mechanical ventilation. 

RSV infections do not have a specific treatment. However, researchers are working on developing antivirals for the infection. 


RSV is very contagious. For this reason, it is quite important to know how to prevent the spread of infection to other people. Simple preventive measures include:

  • Avoiding close or direct contact with people who have an RSV infection (e.g., kissing or hugging)
  • Do not share toys, bottles, cups, and other personal things that are probably contaminated with RSV. Remember that the virus can survive for several hours on surfaces and other hard objects.
  • Practice good handwashing habits. Wash your hands using soap and water for at least 20 seconds after being exposed to individuals with RSV.
  • Patients who are more prone to getting RSV infections may receive palivizumab injections (monoclonal antibody) to prevent them from developing severe RSV infections. However, this drug tends to be ineffective when patients are already infected with the virus.