Everything You Need To Know About RSV


RSV stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus, a common virus known to cause infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It is a highly contagious virus that can spread quickly amongst people through respiratory secretions such as saliva, mucus, or nasal discharge.

RSV is a leading cause of respiratory illnesses like bronchiolitis and pneumonia, primarily in infants and young children. Adults and older children infected by RSV show mild symptoms (similar to the common cold). Simple self-care measures can manage these symptoms and any discomfort caused by the virus.

Types of RSV

RSV is broadly classified into two subtypes:

  1. RSV-A
  2. RSV-B

Both types of RSV can cause respiratory illness, but they have some differences in their genetic makeup and how they affect people.

RSV-A is generally associated with more severe illness, while RSV-B tends to cause milder symptoms. However, both types of RSV can cause severe illness, especially in infants, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

It is also worth noting that RSV can undergo genetic changes over time, leading to the emergence of new virus strains. This can make developing effective vaccines and treatments against RSV challenging, as the virus can evolve and adapt quickly.

Symptoms of RSV

The symptoms of RSV can range from mild to severe, and they typically appear within 4-6 days after exposure to the virus.

Common symptoms of RSV can include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

In infants and young children, RSV can also cause:

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lethargy or decreased activity
  • Poor feeding or decreased appetite
  • Cyanosis (a blue tint to the skin or nails) due to a lack of oxygen

Occasionally, RSV can lead to more severe complications, such as pneumonia, bronchiolitis, or croup. Infants, young children, older adults, and those with weak immune systems are at a higher risk of developing severe illness from RSV. If you or your child are experiencing RSV symptoms, seeking medical care promptly is essential.

Causes of RSV

The Respiratory Syncytial Virus enters the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. This virus spreads through the air on infected respiratory droplets. Hence, it is easy for children and adults to get infected when someone with RSV coughs or sneezes nearby. The virus may also pass to others through direct contact, such as shaking hands.

Most people are unaware that the virus can live on hard objects for several hours, such as tables, countertops, doorknobs, crib rails, and toys. One can pick up the virus simply by touching the infected object and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.

RSV is most common during the fall, winter, and early spring months, and it tends to occur in outbreaks in crowded environments such as schools, daycares, and nursing homes. Infants and young children are particularly susceptible to RSV, as their immune systems are not yet fully developed.

An individual infected with RSV is most contagious during the first week. However, among infants, young children, and older adults with weakened immunity, RSV spreads even after symptoms go away (up to 4 weeks).

Risk Factors of RSV

Several risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing severe RSV infection, including:

  • Age: Infants and young children under two years, and older adults aged 65 years and above, are at the most significant risk of developing severe RSV infection.
  • Prematurity: Premature infants born before 37 weeks of gestation are at a higher risk of developing severe RSV infection due to their underdeveloped immune systems and lungs.
  • Chronic lung disease: Children and adults with chronic lung disease, such as asthma or cystic fibrosis, are at an increased risk of developing severe RSV infection.
  • Congenital heart disease: Infants born with congenital heart disease have a higher risk of developing severe RSV infection due to their weakened immune systems.
  • Weak immune system: People with weakened immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, or organ transplants, are at a higher risk of developing severe RSV infection.
  • Crowded living: Living in crowded conditions, such as daycare centers, nursing homes, or military barracks, can increase the risk of RSV transmission and severe infection.
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke: Exposure to cigarette smoke can weaken the immune system and significantly increase the risk of developing severe RSV infection.

If you or someone you know is at high risk for severe RSV infection, it is important to take precautions such as frequent hand washing, avoiding crowded spaces or close contact with sick individuals, and staying up-to-date with RSV vaccines and treatments recommended by your healthcare provider.

Complications Associated with RSV

RSV can cause various complications, especially in infants, young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

Some of the most encountered complications associated with RSV infection include:

  • Bronchiolitis: Bronchiolitis is a respiratory condition that affects the small airways in the lungs. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis in infants and young children.
  • Pneumonia: RSV can also cause pneumonia, an infection of the lungs that can be serious and potentially life-threatening.
  • Croup: RSV can cause croup, which affects the larynx (voice box), causing a barking cough and difficulty breathing.
  • Otitis media: RSV can cause ear infections, especially in young children.
  • Respiratory failure: In severe cases, RSV infection can lead to respiratory failure, a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment.
  • Apnea: RSV can cause apnea, where breathing stops temporarily, especially in premature infants.
  • Wheezing: RSV can cause wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing that can indicate an underlying respiratory condition.
  • Death: Although rare, RSV infection can lead to death, especially in high-risk populations such as premature infants or those with underlying health conditions.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of RSV, it is essential to seek medical care promptly, especially if you or they are in a high-risk group for severe infection. Early treatment can help prevent complications and improve outcomes.

Prevention of RSV

There are several steps one can take to prevent the spread of RSV:

  • Cover your cough and sneeze into a tissue
  • Wash hands often, preferably with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid close contact with other individuals, such as sharing utensils, kissing, shaking hands, etc.
  • Clean surfaces that are frequently touched, including mobile phones, door knobs, taps, handles, etc.
  • Avoid interacting with kids or handling babies if you have cold or cold-like symptoms
  • Do not handle babies and young children without washing hands
  • Restrict time kids spend at childcare centers or contagious settings
  • Speak to a medical professional if your child is vulnerable to severe RSV disease

Frequently Asked Questions

The virus is usually spread by droplet and contact transmission. This is also why medical professionals strictly ask parents and other family members to wash their hands frequently while handling babies, diapering, feeding, and preparing formula or food for them. Hand hygiene plays the most crucial part in preventing RSV.

RSV usually starts with cold-like symptoms. It may become serious when the virus enters the infant's lower airways. The infant may forget to breathe or breathe harder.

No. Patients do not develop permanent immunity to the virus. Individuals who are infected with RSV may get infections again during their life. However, subsequent infections are usually less severe.

RSV infections occur all across the globe. The outbreaks may last up to 5 months (commonly late fall through early spring). This virus usually spreads commonly in households, daycare centers, and schools.

It is advised that you should consult with your healthcare provider without delay. Breathing difficulties in an infant are considered an emergency. Immediate medical help can help the baby recover faster.

RSV is common all over the world. Hence, additional precautions are not needed when traveling.

All children will have had exposure to RSV before they reach age 2. Children under 2 are more prone to develop bronchiolitis (lower respiratory tract infection). These infections are usually less severe in children older than 2.

Yes. The infection can be life-threatening! There is no medicine to treat severe RSV infection. Hence, the parents are advised to care for the baby by getting treated for its effects on the respiratory system.

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