Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Contagious?

What Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Repiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cause a mild cold-like illness in children. It is quite contagious but usually not dangerous for otherwise healthy kids.
Repiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cause a mild cold-like illness in children. It is quite contagious but usually not dangerous for otherwise healthy kids.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common cause of respiratory tract infections, particularly in infants and young children. Most children will have an RSV infection by their second birthday because it's so common and contagious. In healthy children, the virus usually causes just a mild cold.

However, in infants and older adults, RSV can cause serious illness. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under 1 year of age in the U.S, and it is a major cause of respiratory illness in older adults.

What Are Symptoms of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) include:

Additional symptoms in infants may include: 

  • Irritability
  • Decreased activity
  • Sleepiness
  • Breathing problems
  • Poor feeding

What Causes Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection is caused by a virus that affects the respiratory tract.

In the U.S., RSV outbreaks often occur during the late fall, winter, and early spring.

Risk factors for contracting respiratory syncytial virus include:

  • Infants and children in daycare or who spend time in public places with a lot of people such as parks
  • Older infected siblings who spread the virus to younger siblings
  • Older adults who live in nursing homes or other group settings
  • Sharing food contaminated with the virus
  • Touching objects contaminated with the virus and not washing hands before touching your face
  • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Patients with Down syndrome
  • Living at altitudes greater than 8,200 feet

Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Contagious?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is highly contagious and spreads from person-to-person via respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes, or even talks.

RSV is transmitted by close contact with an infected person, or by touching surfaces (such as doorknobs, countertops, or tabletops) or objects such as toys contaminated by an infected person, not washing your hands, and then touching you mouth, nose, or eyes. 

RSV may also be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her fetus.

People with RSV are usually contagious for three to eight days.

How Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Diagnosed?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is diagnosed with a patient history and physical exam. If the patient has symptoms of the common cold and is not at risk for severe infection, no testing may be done. 

In patients at high risk for severe infection, tests may include: 

  • Viral detection test that analyzes nasal drainage
  • Chest X-ray to check for pneumonia
  • Blood tests
  • Oximetry (measurement of blood oxygen levels via a device placed on the patient's finger)

What Is the Treatment for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

There is no specific treatment for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. For mild to moderate infections, home care to relieve symptoms is usually all that is needed.

Home remedies to help relieve symptoms of RSV include:

  • Rest 
  • Drink plenty of fluids 
  • Use a humidifier to keep air moist
  • Saline nasal drops help keep nasal passages lubricated
  • Elevate the head the bed to help nasal secretions drain
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or aspirin
    • Do not give children or teenagers aspirin as it could cause a serious condition called Reye syndrome
  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke

Antibiotics are not typically used to treat because RSV is a virus and antibiotics are used for bacterial infections. However, if a secondary bacterial infection (such as pneumonia) develops, antibiotics may be prescribed.

In severe cases, if bronchiolitis develops, patients may need to be hospitalized and treatment may include:

  • Supplemental oxygen
  • Suctioning of mucus
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration

How Do You Prevent Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

There is no vaccine currently available to prevent respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Respiratory syncytial virus can often be prevented with the same proper hygiene followed to prevent the common cold

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for 20 seconds
  • Cover the mouth with a tissue or your sleeve when coughing or sneezing
  • Immediately discard used tissues 
  • Do not share food, dishes, or utensils with others
  • Take precautions to prevent infection if you have children at high risk for severe infection with RSV
    • Do not interact with high-risk children if you have a cold
    • Do not kiss your children if you have symptoms
    • Limit the time high-risk children spend at day care or other public settings during RSV season, which is late fall, winter, and early spring

Premature infants and infants who have chronic lung disease may be given a preventive treatment of a neutralizing antibody to RSV called palivizumab (Synagis) to reduce the risk of severe illness. Palivizumab is not used to treat RSV but to help prevent infection.

Barr, Frederick E., and Barney S. Graham. "Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection: Clinical Features and Diagnosis." Aug. 8, 2019. <>.

Barr, Frederick E., and Barney S. Graham. "Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection: Treatment." June 11, 2021. <>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)." <>.