(Last Updated On: March 29, 2023)

What is RSV?

By Becky Dotson & Keegan Bradford

7 min read

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of RSV, but do you know what it is? RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus and it’s a common illness that causes infections in the lungs and respiratory tract. Most of the time, it’s children who get sick with the virus, but adults can get RSV, too. While it may take a week or two for you or your child to recover, it’s generally something that can be treated at home.

baby peeking out from under a blanket

Who Is at Risk for RSV?

RSV is considered a childhood illness. Experts say most children will have it at least once before they turn two. But it can infect older children and even adults. If you or your child fall into the following categories, you are more at risk of developing severe or life-threatening infections:

  • Adults 65 years or older
  • Adults with heart and lung diseases
  • Adults and children with weakened immune systems
  • Chemotherapy patients
  • Children who have difficulty swallowing or can’t clear mucus
  • Organ transplant recipients
  • Infants born with heart defects
  • Infants born with lung disease
  • Infants under 6 months old
  • Premature infants

How Do Babies Get RSV?

Babies are still building up their immunity, so they’re at a higher risk of getting sick. Since RSV is so highly contagious it spreads quickly and easily. Many times, adults or older children may think they just have a cold or allergies and end up passing the infection along to an infant. Babies can also get RSV from older children who bring the virus home from school.

Since babies love to put their hands in their mouth, it’s also easy for them to touch a toy or surface that has been contaminated and become infected when they start chewing on their fingers or hands.

baby sleeping in crib

What Are the Symptoms of RSV?

The symptoms of RSV are similar to a cold or other respiratory viruses. You or your child may experience any or all of the following:

  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Wheezing

The symptoms generally start in stages, with the first stage showing up between four and six days after exposure. While adults or children with RSV will not feel well, most infections are considered to be mild. However, RSV can spread into the lower respiratory tract and cause more severe illness and the following symptoms:

  • Bluish color of the skin due to a lack of oxygen
  • Fever
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing when exhaling

If your child has any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor immediately.

When to Take a Baby with RSV to the Hospital?

Infants are the ones that are most severely affected by RSV. This can be difficult, since they can’t communicate and tell you what hurts or what’s wrong. Symptoms can appear similar to other seasonal or viral infections, so the best course of action is to immediately consult a pediatrician if RSV is suspected. That is why it’s important to recognize these symptoms of severe RSV infection in infants:

  • Severe cough
  • Irritability
  • Decreased activity
  • Nostrils that flare out with every breath
  • Not eating or not eating well
  • Short, shallow, and rapid breathing
  • Struggling to breathe (seeing their chest muscles and skin pull in with each breath)
  • Unusual tiredness

If your baby has these symptoms, then it’s important for you to seek treatment for them immediately.

Is RSV Contagious?

RSV is highly contagious. It spreads easily through close contact. If someone who has it sneezes or coughs, the virus will then become airborne and enter your body through your eyes, mouth, or nose. It can also be passed by kissing a child’s face or shaking hands. The virus can live on hard surfaces – like desks and doorknobs – for hours. If you touch an infected surface and then touch your face before you wash your hands, you can become infected. The virus won’t live as long on soft surfaces like tissues or your hands.

Someone who has RSV is usually the most contagious between day three and seven of symptoms. But an infant or person with a weakened immune system can be contagious for as long as four weeks.

Is RSV a Serious Illness?

RSV is a seasonal illness. It shows up in the United States beginning in late fall and cases will continue through early spring, hitting their peak during January and February. 2022 has been a little different with more cases showing up in late fall. The spike has caused emergency departments across the US to be overrun with infants and children who are very sick.

Most cases are generally considered mild, but can progress to more severe illness like pneumonia or bronchiolitis (an inflammation of small airway passages going into the lungs). It can also cause conditions like asthma, congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to become worse.

Can an Adult Get RSV from a Child?

RSV is mostly considered a childhood illness, but adults can get it too in the same ways that children get RSV. If you do contract RSV, you will most likely have mild, cold-like symptoms. Older adults who have asthma, COPD, congestive heart failure, or who have had pneumonia are more at risk to have more severe symptoms. High risk patients may need to be hospitalized for treatment.

How Long Does RSV Last?

Even though most RSV cases are considered mild, your child can and will be very sick for several days. The symptoms are generally the worst between day three and five of the illness, but they can last between one and two weeks. And the virus can linger in your body for several weeks after that. The cough is usually the last to go and can last between four and eight weeks.

How to Treat RSV?

If you take your child to the doctor, they will most likely listen to their lungs and check their oxygen level. They may also order blood tests and swab their nose or throat to test for other types of infections or viruses. An x-ray or CT scan of your child’s lungs may be ordered if your doctor suspects a severe case of RSV.

There is no vaccine or cure for RSV and there’s really no prescription treatment for a general case of the virus. You’ll have to rely on over-the-counter products to treat and manage each symptom. For the fever and headache, it’s ibuprofen or acetaminophen, a decongestant and cough suppressant for the congestion and cough, and plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration. Saline nasal drops will also help loosen up the mucus in the nose. You will want to check with your pediatrician before you give your child any over-the-counter medication to treat RSV to make sure they’re safe and you’re giving them the most effective medicines to manage the virus. It’s also important to note that you should never give aspirin to children for any reason.

If RSV turns into pneumonia, you or your child will be given an antibiotic to clear up the infection. Sometimes, hospitalization is required. If RSV turns into bronchiolitis, your child may have to be hospitalized and given oxygen treatments for breathing and IVs to stay hydrated. Most hospital stays for RSV last around two or three days.

If your infant or child is at high risk for the disease, they may be prescribed palivizumab (also known under the brand name Synagis). The drug is a monthly injection given to high-risk patients during “RSV season.” It gives the body antibodies to protect against RSV and keeps your child from developing serious lung infections caused by RSV. Babies born prematurely or small children born with heart disease, chronic lung disease, or breathing problems may be a candidate for the treatment. It cannot be administered if a child already has RSV and it is not recommended for healthy children.

Is There a Vaccine for RSV?

There is not currently a vaccine for RSV, but one will be coming soon. Pfizer has recently announced that they have completed their study and will be submitting for US Food and Drug Administration approval by the end of the year. The vaccine is designed to protect newborns. It will be administered to pregnant women who will make antibodies that cross the placenta and protect the infant after birth. In March, Pfizer’s RSV vaccine was designated a breakthrough therapy by the FDA in order to speed up its review. According to Pfizer, the results of their research have been promising.

How Can I Prevent RSV?

You can get RSV more than once in your life, and you can actually get it more than once during the same RSV season. Repeated infections, however, tend to be less severe. Whether it’s a mild case or not, no one ever wants their child to get sick. The best thing to do is to work towards preventing RSV.

  • Wash your hands often and teach your child to wash their hands often.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • Try your best to keep your infants and children away from people who have colds and fevers.
  • Clean countertops, doorknobs, and other frequently touched surfaces in your home regularly.
  • Throw away used tissues immediately.
  • Wash toys regularly – especially if your child is at an age where toys go in their mouth.
  • Don’t smoke around babies. Babies exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of getting RSV.
  • Invest in an air purifier. Air purifiers pull pollutants out of the air and send out clean, purified air. There are certain air purifiers that work well in pulling germs, bacteria and viruses out of the air. Here are a couple of our recommendations:

Air Purifiers to Prevent RSV

Best Living Room Air Purifier for RSV

Alen Breathesmart
75i with Carbon
Air Purifier

$769 Buy Now

2nd Best Living Room Air Purifier for RSV

HealthPro Plus
Air Purifier

$899 Buy Now

Better Living Room Air Purifier for RSV

Classic 605
Air Purifier

$498 Buy Now

Good Living Room Air Purifier for RSV

Austin Air
Healthmate Plus
Air Purifier

$850 Buy Now

2nd Good Option for Living Room for RSV

AirMega 400
Air Purifier

$450 Buy Now

The Bottom Line

You never want your children to be sick, but RSV is a common illness that most children will experience at some point. It’s best to know the symptoms, treatments, and how best to prevent it so your child can be back to themselves in no time. An air purifier can be an effective first line of defense against RSV and removing the virus from the air.