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Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 4, 2022.

What is a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection?

An RSV infection is a condition that causes swelling in your child's lower airway and lungs. The swelling may cause your child to have trouble breathing. The RSV virus is the most common cause of lung infections in infants and young children. An RSV infection can happen at any age, but happens more often in children younger than 2 years. An RSV infection usually lasts 5 to 15 days. RSV infection is most common in the fall and winter. An RSV infection often leads to other lung problems, such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

How does the virus spread?

RSV is highly contagious. Germs may be spread to others through coughing, sneezing, or close contact. Germs may be left on objects such as doorknobs, beds, tables, cribs, and toys. Your child can get infected by putting objects that carry the virus into his or her mouth. Your child can also get infected by touching objects that carry the virus and then rubbing his or her eyes or nose. Your child may get RSV from a school-aged brother or sister or at a daycare center.

What increases my child's risk for a severe RSV infection?

  • Being born prematurely (less than 37 weeks) or at a low weight (less than 5 pounds)
  • Age younger than 6 months
  • A medical condition, such as a heart problem or cystic fibrosis
  • A weak immune system caused by certain conditions, such as HIV or a bone marrow transplant
  • Exposure to high levels of secondhand cigarette smoke

What are the early signs and symptoms of an RSV infection?

RSV infection begins like a common cold. Your child may have any of the following:

  • Runny nose
  • A cough or wheezing
  • Fever
  • Breathing faster than usual
  • Not eating or sleeping as well as usual

What are the signs and symptoms of a severe RSV infection?

  • Very fast breathing (60 to 70 breaths or more in 1 minute), or pauses in breathing of at least 15 seconds
  • Grunting and increased wheezing or noisy breathing
  • Nostrils become wider when breathing in
  • Pale or bluish skin, lips, fingernails, or toenails
  • Pulling in of the skin between the ribs and around the neck with each breath
  • A fast heartbeat
  • Loss of appetite or poor feeding, or being fussier or more irritable than before
  • More sleepy than usual, trouble staying awake, or not responding to you
  • Having less wet diapers than usual or urinating less than usual

How is an RSV infection diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will examine your child and ask about his or her symptoms. Tell the provider if your child has other medical problems. Your child may need a blood test to check for RSV. A swab of your child's nose or throat may be taken and tested for RSV. Nasal drainage may also be suctioned from your child's nose and tested for infection.

How is RSV treated?

Young children with a severe infection may need to be monitored and treated in the hospital. Children at risk for a severe infection may also need to be monitored and treated in the hospital. Most children can be given medicine at home to help manage symptoms. Do not give over-the-counter cough or cold medicines to children under 4 years. The following can help you manage your child's symptoms until the infection is gone:

  • Acetaminophen may help decrease your child's pain and fever. This medicine is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much medicine is safe to give your child, and how often to give it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If your child takes blood thinner medicine, always ask if NSAIDs are safe for him or her. Always read the medicine label and follow directions. Do not give these medicines to children younger than 6 months without direction from a healthcare provider.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

What else can I do to help manage my child's symptoms?

  • Have your child rest. Rest can help your child's body fight the infection.
  • Give your child plenty of liquids. Liquids will help thin and loosen mucus so your child can cough it up. Liquids will also keep your child hydrated. Do not give your child liquids with caffeine. Caffeine can increase your child's risk for dehydration. Liquids that help prevent dehydration include water, fruit juice, or broth. Ask your child's healthcare provider how much liquid to give your child each day.
  • Remove mucus from your child's nose. Do this before you feed your child so it is easier for him or her to drink and eat. Place saline (saltwater) spray or drops into your child's nose to help remove mucus. Saline spray and drops are available over-the-counter. Follow directions on the spray or drops bottle. Have your child blow his or her nose after you use these products. Use a bulb syringe to help remove mucus from an infant or young child's nose. Ask your child's healthcare provider how to use a bulb syringe.
    Proper Use of Bulb Syringe
  • Use a cool mist humidifier in your child's room. Cool mist can help thin mucus and make it easier for your child to breathe. Be sure to clean the humidifier as directed.
  • Keep your child away from smoke. Do not smoke near your child. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can make your child's symptoms worse. Ask your child's healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit.

What can I do to help prevent the spread of germs?

  • Wash your hands and your child's hands often. Wash your hands several times each day. Wash after you use the bathroom, change a child's diaper, and before you prepare or eat food. Wash your child's hands after he or she uses the bathroom or sneezes. Wash your child's hands before he or she eats. Use soap and water every time. Rub your soapy hands together, lacing your fingers. Wash the front and back of your hands, and in between your fingers. Use the fingers of one hand to scrub under the fingernails of the other hand. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Rinse with warm, running water for several seconds. Then dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel. Use germ-killing gel if soap and water are not available. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without washing your hands first.
  • Keep your child away from others who are sick. Separate your child from siblings who are sick. Ask friends and family not to visit if they are sick.
  • Clean toys and surfaces. Clean toys that are shared with other children. Use a disinfectant solution to clean common surfaces.
  • Ask about medicine that protects against severe RSV. Your child may need to receive antiviral medicine to help protect him from severe illness. This may be given if your child has a high risk of becoming severely ill from RSV. When needed, your child will receive 1 dose every month for 5 months. The first dose is usually given in early November. Ask your child's healthcare provider if this medicine is right for your child.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child is 6 months or younger and takes more than 50 breaths in 1 minute.
  • Your child is 6 to 11 months old and takes more than 40 breaths in 1 minute.
  • Your child is 1 year or older and takes more than 30 breaths in 1 minute.
  • Your child pauses between breaths.
  • Your child is grunting and has increased wheezing or noisy breathing
  • Your child's nostrils become wider when he or she breathes in.
  • Your child's skin, lips, fingernails, or toes are pale or blue.
  • The skin between your child's ribs and around his neck is pulling in with each breath.
  • Your child's heart is beating faster than usual.
  • Your child has signs of dehydration such as:
    • Crying without tears
    • Dry mouth or cracked lips
    • More irritable or sleepy than normal
    • Sunken soft spot on the top of the head, if he is younger than 1 year
    • Urinating less than usual or not at all

When should I call my child's doctor?

  • Your child is younger than 2 years and has a fever for more than 24 hours.
  • Your child is 2 years or older and has a fever for more than 72 hours.
  • Your child's nasal drainage is thick, yellow, green, or gray.
  • Your child's symptoms do not get better, or they get worse.
  • Your child is not eating, has nausea, or is vomiting.
  • Your child is very tired or weak, or he is sleeping more than usual.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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