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Ask A Doctor... What is RSV?

January 27, 2017 | By Lisa Schwenk
Published in: Infectious Disease, Question Answer


Allison Baroco, MD
Allison Baroco, MD

Answer provided by Allison Baroco, MD, an Infectious Disease specialist at Augusta Health.

Dr. Baroco attended the University of South Alabama Medical School and completed her residency and fellowship at the Eastern Virginia Medical School. She is ABIM Board Certified in Infectious Diseases.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. For most people, RSV causes a mild illness, but it can be serious in infants and older adults. In the United States, RSV infections generally occur during fall, winter and spring.

The symptoms of RSV are relatively familiar—a runny nose and decrease in appetite, followed by coughing, sneezing and a fever. For some babies, parents notice irritability and breathing difficulties. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday, and many will have seen a doctor and recover in one to two weeks.

Some RSV infections, though, can be quite severe and require hospitalization. According to the CDC, approximately 5-20 out of 1,000 infants will need to be hospitalized, and most of those will be younger than six months of age. Premature infants, children younger than two years of age with congenital heart or chronic lung disease, and children with weakened immune systems due to medical condition or medical treatment are at the highest risk for a serious RSV infection.

RSV is spread when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes into the air. Droplets infected with the virus can linger briefly in the air, and other people become infected when those droplet come in contact with their nose, mouth or eye. RSV can also be spread by direct contact—such as when someone infected with RVS kisses the face of a baby or child. The virus can also live on surfaces such as doorknobs and be spread through touching an infected surface, then rubbing the eyes or nose.

There is no vaccine for RSV. To prevent the spread of RSV, people with symptoms of a cold should:

  • Cover their coughs and sneezes properly;
  • Wash their hands frequently;
  • Refrain from kissing others;
  • Avoid sharing cups, plates and silverware with others.
  • Stay at home until fevers and respiratory symptoms have improved

Cleaning surfaces such as doorknobs, phones and counters regularly can also help stop the spread of RSV.

Parents with children who are at high risk for RSV should take special precautions to protect that child. Ideally, those with cold symptoms should not interact with infants at high risk.

As with any medical condition, please discuss your child's specific symptoms with his or her physician.