According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolotis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) in children under 12 months of age in the United States. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by the time they turn two, and in most cases the virus causes only minor cold-like symptoms. But some children, and even a few adults, may develop more severe infections that require hospitalization.
RSV is spread through infectious respiratory secretions that are inhaled or passed to others through direct contact. The virus also can live for hours on objects such as toys or door handles. The spread of infection can be reduced by washing hands frequently, avoiding exposure to others who are sick, keeping things clean, not sharing drinking glasses or eating utensils with others, not smoking around infants, and washing toys regularly. The peak RSV season starts in the fall and ends in the spring, or around November through April.
Signs of RSV usually appear about four to six days after being exposed to the virus. Adults and healthy, older children typically have symptoms that mimic the common cold, starting with a runny nose and decrease in appetite. Coughing, sneezing and a low-grade fever may then develop one to three days later. The only signs of RSV in very young infants could be irritability, decreased activity, and problems with breathing. Full recovery from the virus takes about one to two weeks.
Severe cases of RSV can lead to lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Hospitalization may be necessary for infants who require intravenous fluids, supplemental oxygen, suctioning of mucus from the airways, or a breathing machine to ease breathing. Antibiotics may be administered for bacterial complications, such as a middle ear infection or bacterial pneumonia.
People at increased risk for developing severe cases of RSV include:
- Infants under six months old
- Babies less than one year old who were born prematurely or have congenital heart or lung disease
- Children with weakened immune systems due to a medical condition or treatment
- Adults 65 and older, and those with congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or immunodeficiency such as HIV/AIDS
There is no specific treatment or vaccine for RSV. However, symptoms can be relieved by creating moist air to breathe, sitting in an upright position, drinking fluids, avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke, and using saline nasal drops or over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce fever and relieve a sore throat.
A medication called palivizumab may be prescribed for children at increased risk for serious complications from RSV. The drug does not stop RSV infections, but it can prevent severe cases from developing.
For more information about RSV, talk with your doctor or call 1-888-457-5203 for a free referral to a family medicine specialist near you.