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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection


Topic Overview

What is respiratory syncytial virus infection?

Respiratory syncytial virus infection, usually called RSV, is a lot like a bad cold. It causes the same symptoms. And like a cold, it is very common and very contagious. Most children have had it at least once by age 2.

RSV is usually not something to worry about. But it can lead to pneumonia or other problems in some people, especially babies. So it's important to watch the symptoms and call your doctor if they get worse.

What causes RSV infection?

A virus causes RSV infection. Like a cold virus, RSV attacks your nose, eyes, throat, and lungs. It spreads like a cold too, when you cough, sneeze, or share food or drinks.

There are many kinds of RSV, so your body never becomes immune to it. You can get it again and again throughout your life, sometimes during the same season.

What are the symptoms?

RSV usually causes the same symptoms as a bad cold, such as:

  • A cough.
  • A stuffy or runny nose.
  • A mild sore throat.
  • An earache.
  • A fever.

Babies with RSV may also:

  • Have no energy.
  • Act fussy or cranky.
  • Be less hungry than usual.

Some children have more serious symptoms, like wheezing. Call your doctor if your child is wheezing or having trouble breathing.

How is RSV diagnosed?

Doctors usually diagnose RSV by asking about your or your child's symptoms and by knowing whether there is an outbreak of the infection in your area.

There are tests for RSV, but they aren't usually needed. Your doctor may want to do testing if you or your child may be likely to have other problems. The most common test uses a sample of the drainage from your nose.

How is it treated?

RSV usually goes away on its own. For most people, home treatment is all that is needed. If your child has RSV:

  • Prop up your child's head to make it easier to breathe and sleep.
  • Suction your baby's nose if he or she can't breathe well enough to eat or sleep.
  • Relieve fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, if needed. Never give aspirin to someone younger than 20 years, because it can cause Reye syndrome, a serious but rare problem.

When a person with RSV is otherwise healthy, symptoms usually get better in a week or two.

RSV can be serious when the symptoms are very bad or when it leads to other problems, like pneumonia. Certain people are more likely to have problems with RSV:

  • Babies younger than 6 months, especially those born early (prematurely)
  • People with immune system problems
  • People with heart or lung problems
  • Adults older than 65

These people sometimes need treatment in a hospital. So it's important to watch the symptoms and call your doctor if they get worse.

Can you prevent RSV infection?

It's very hard to keep from catching RSV, just like it's hard to keep from catching a cold. But you can lower the chances by practicing good health habits. Wash your hands often, and teach your child to do the same. See that your child gets all the vaccines your doctor recommends.

Medicines to prevent RSV may be given to babies and children who are more likely to have problems with the infection. Sometimes these medicines don't prevent RSV, but they may keep symptoms from getting serious.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about RSV infection:

  • What is RSV?
  • What causes it?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • How does RSV progress?
  • What increases the risk?

Being diagnosed:

  • Who can diagnose RSV?
  • How is it diagnosed?

Getting treatment:

  • How is RSV treated?

Ongoing concerns:

  • When should I call a doctor?
  • What can I do at home to relieve symptoms?
  • How can I prevent RSV?

eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

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