Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus but it is highly contagious, and while most cases are very mild, it can be dangerous to some individuals. Almost everyone will encounter it at some point, which is why we feel that everyone should have some basic information about it.
What is RSV?
RSV is a viral infection of the respiratory system. It is extremely contagious and so common that most babies catch it by the time they turn two years old. It is the most common cause of both bronchitis and pneumonia in young children in the United States.
Who Experiences RSV?
The disease is most common in young children, but adults do catch it from time to time. The majority of infections begin between the end of fall and the spring, with relatively few cases in the summer months.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of RSV are usually mild and can be mistaken for those of a cold. Sore throats, mild headaches, congestion, runny noses, and slight fevers are all common. They usually last for a week or two and rarely need treatment.
There are exceptions. Severe cases do happen and they can cause pneumonia or bronchitis, which are much more serious problems. Higher fevers, wheezing, coughs, and even difficult breathing happen in those cases. Very young children may have trouble feeding and become less active. These severe cases require rapid medical attention, especially for babies that are struggling to breathe.
What are the Risk Factors for RSV?
RSV is highly contagious and many of the risk factors ultimately revolve around exposure to the virus. People who spend time in crowded areas, such as children that go to school or daycare, are particularly likely to pick it up from others. Younger children are also at greater risk if they have a sibling who is old enough to mingle with crowds because that sibling can bring it home.
Children that are less than six months old, have some congenital health problems, or were born prematurely are also at greater risk of developing severe symptoms. Adults with compromised immune systems, asthma, or some diseases of the respiratory or pulmonary systems should also be careful due to increased risk.
Good hygiene is the best way to reduce the risk of RSV. We advise people to wash their hands and stay clean, especially if they are going to get near young children. The virus can survive on hard surfaces for a while without a host, so it is also important to keep the house clean. Parents should also prevent people who refuse to wash their hands or who are showing the symptoms of a cold from getting near their children.
Children who are at risk should avoid daycare and other areas that are prone to spreading diseases. It is also best to keep them away from any siblings who show symptoms of RSV or similar diseases.
Treatment is possible for people who do get infected. Healthy individuals can usually drink plenty of fluids and wait for the virus to pass. Over the counter medications can help to manage the symptoms, but it is vital to talk to a doctor before giving them to young children.
Severe cases require medical attention. People, especially young children, who are struggling to breathe or severely dehydrated will need to go to the hospital. Most others will simply need to go to their doctor to assess the problem and determine which, if any, treatments are necessary.