What is RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)?

Respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, is a common virus affecting the respiratory system. It often shows up as mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people get better in one to two weeks, but sometimes RSV can become severe. Infants and older adults face a higher risk of needing hospital care due to RSV. If you’re 60 or older, there is a vaccine to keep you safe from severe RSV.

RSV mainly infects the lungs and breathing passages. It’s so prevalent that most children catch it by age 21. For adults and healthy older children, RSV symptoms are usually mild, resembling a cold. However, in certain groups, like babies 12 months and younger, especially premature babies, older grown-ups, and those with heart or lung issues, or a weakened immune system, it can lead to severe infections1.

Key Takeaways

  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms.
  • Infants and older adults are more likely to develop severe RSV and need hospitalization.
  • Most children have been infected with RSV by age 2, and it can cause severe infection in some high-risk individuals.
  • RSV spreads easily through the air and contact, and can lower immunity and increase COVID-19 risk.
  • Preventive measures like antibody products, vaccines, and good hygiene can help protect those most vulnerable to severe RSV.

Overview of RSV

RSV causes lung and respiratory tract infections.1 It’s very common, infecting most kids by age 2.1 Adults can get it too. In them, it often shows mild cold symptoms.1 But, RSV can be very serious in some, like babies under 12 months, especially if premature, and in old adults.1

Definition of Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a well-known virus affecting the lungs and airways.1

Prevalence and Transmission

Most children catch RSV by age 2 because it’s so common.1 It spreads through breathing in the virus in droplets. The time between catching it and feeling sick is usually 4 to 6 days.2 Very young kids and those with weak immune systems can spread the virus for up to 4 weeks.3

Risk Factors for Severe Infection

Severe RSV cases mostly affect babies and young kids, older adults, and those with heart or lung problems.1 The risk is also high for premature babies and certain health conditions or illnesses.2

Symptoms of RSV

Signs of RSV usually show up four to six days after being near infected people.1 In adults and older kids, it feels like a bad cold. You might have a congested or runny nose, a dry cough, and a little fever. Also, your throat can hurt, you could sneeze a lot, and have a headache.

Mild Symptoms in Adults and Older Children

If the virus hits your chest, it can get serious. There may be a high fever, a bad cough, and you could find it hard to breathe. You might wheeze or your breath could be very fast. Your skin might also turn blue from not getting enough oxygen.1

Severe Symptoms and Complications

RSV is toughest on babies. They might breathe fast, seem too tired to eat, or they could be cranky.4 Very young babies with bad RSV could breathe weird, show they’re struggling with their chest or nose, and turn blue from not enough oxygen.

rsv symptoms

what is rsv

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus. It often shows as mild, cold-like symptoms.1 People usually get better in a week or two. But, for infants and older adults, RSV can lead to serious issues.1

RSV affects the lungs and the respiratory tract. This virus is very common. By age 2,135 most children have had it.

In healthy adults and older children, RSV’s effects are mild. It might feel just like a common cold. However, it can be severe in some groups. This includes babies under 12 months, especially those born early, older adults, and people with heart or lung problems.1

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RSV and COVID-19

RSV and COVID-19 are both respiratory viruses. So, their symptoms can seem alike. In kids, COVID-19 might cause mild signs like fever. They may also get a runny nose and cough. Adults might have more serious trouble breathing issues.6

Similarities and Differences

RSV could weaken your body’s ability to fight COVID-19. This is true for both kids and adults. If you get both infections at the same time, your COVID-19 case might get more severe.6

Co-infection Risks

In the US, studies looked at how the Omicron and Delta variants affect kids under 5 with COVID-19.7 They also found that people who abuse substances face a higher risk of getting COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated. This was seen from December 2020 to August 2021.7

Moreover, in the US, COVID-19 might be linked to heart infections in people who use drugs. Also, the virus could lead to a new problem: heavy drinking after getting infected.7

Causes and Transmission

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) enters the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. It spreads easily through the air when infected people cough or sneeze near you.8 The virus can also spread by touching hard surfaces where it can live for hours. This includes things like countertops and toys.1

How RSV Spreads

RSV can spread through contact with infected respiratory droplets and by touching contaminated surfaces.8 It’s very easy to catch since it spreads even when the person with RSV has mild or early symptoms.1 The virus can remain active on hard objects for hours. This makes it likely to spread through toys, surfaces, and close contact with others.1

Contagious Period

An infected person is most contagious during the first week or so. But, infants and those with weakened immunity might keep spreading the virus even after feeling better. This could last for up to four weeks.1 RSV season starts in fall and lasts until the end of spring. Most cases happen during this time.1

how rsv spreads

Risk Factors for Severe RSV Infection

Some people are at higher risk of severe RSV infections. This includes infants, especially if they are premature or under 6 months old9. Kids with heart or lung problems, and those with weak immune systems also face high risk. Children with nervous system disorders are included, as well as adults who have heart or lung issues. Older adults, 65 and up, are at a greater risk too10.

Infants born premature, under 1500g, might have immune system issues9. If they’re born before 32 weeks, they could end up in the hospital due to RSV9. This premature birth can also lead to economic hardships for the families9.

Kids with bronchopulmonary dysplasia have a higher RSV infection risk. It’s crucial to focus on preventing and managing this group9. For children with heart issues, getting a medicine called palivizumab can help a lot9.

Preterm babies and those with ongoing medical problems are more at risk for severe RSV. Surprisingly, most severe cases happen in healthy, full-term babies11. Risk factors for these severe infections in healthy kids include being male, having a low income, having siblings or going to daycare, not being breastfed, being born small, and having a family history of allergic conditions11.

Adults with health problems like asthma, COPD, or heart and kidney issues are at risk from severe RSV. There are three main groups at high risk: those with chronic lung or heart issues, people with weak immune systems, and older adults, especially over 6510.

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Prevention and Protection

To keep young babies safe from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), there are two ways. One is nirsevimab, a single-dose shot that is given just before or during RSV season. The other is the Abrysvo RSV vaccine for pregnant people, who can get it between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. This helps protect their baby for the first 6 months of life12.

Vaccines for Older Adults

The FDA has also okayed RSV vaccines for folks older than 60, like Abrysvo and Arexvy. These vaccines aim to prevent serious RSV infection13.

Lifestyle Habits to Prevent Spread

To stop the RSV virus from spreading, simple actions can make a big difference. These include frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact with those who are sick, and keeping surfaces germ-free. It’s also wise not to share your drinking glass and to stay away from smoking12.

Antibody Products for Infants

All babies less than 8 months and those about to face their first RSV season should get the preventative antibody. Also, some kids aged 8 to 19 months with certain health risks might need it. This list includes American Indian and Alaska Native children as they are at a higher risk of severe RSV illness13.

The CDC updated its advice on using Nirsevimab for the 2023-24 Respiratory Virus Season on January 5, 2024, after an alert to healthcare providers13.

In most cases, an RSV infection gets better in about a week or two without special treatment. But, if the illness is severe, especially for babies under 6 months and older adults, they might need to go to the hospital13.

Treatment and Management

Antiviral medication is not often needed to treat RSV infection. It usually gets better by itself in one to two weeks.14 Yet, it’s good to use supportive care. This includes easing fever and pain with drugs you can buy without a prescription. It’s also vital to make sure the person takes in plenty of fluids. Stay away from cold medicines for kids that have certain ingredients.

If a person with RSV is finding it hard to breathe, drinking too little, or their symptoms are getting worse, call a doctor.1516 RSV can be very serious for some.

Supportive Care MeasuresWhen to Seek Medical Attention
  • Manage fever and pain with over-the-counter medications
  • Ensure the person with RSV drinks enough fluids
  • Avoid giving children nonprescription cold medicines with certain ingredients
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Worsening symptoms

RSV in Infants

Infants can get very sick from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). They have trouble breathing, cough, and can seem tired or cranky.1 Babies born early or under 6 months are at more risk. They might have a harder time with RSV than older kids.1

Symptoms in Infants

In babies, RSV can show up as fast, hard breathing and a bad cough. They may also eat poorly, seem extremely tired, and be easily upset.1 The worst days of sickness are usually 3 to 5 days in. Then, it can take 2 weeks for them to feel better.17

Risks for Premature Infants

Babies born early or younger than 6 months face a higher RSV risk. This includes the chance of needing to stay in the hospital.1 If a baby has heart or lung issues, the risk is even greater.1

Complications of RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can cause serious issues like bronchiolitis and pneumonia. These are lung problems.18 RSV often leads to these issues in kids under 1.18

Most adults and healthy kids don’t need the hospital for RSV. But, older adults and babies under 6 months might. They could be hospitalized if they have trouble breathing or are dehydrated.1

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In bad cases, people might need extra help like oxygen or IV fluids.1 This is more common in those with heart or lung problems or very young babies.1

Pneumonia and Bronchiolitis

RSV mainly causes bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies.18 It’s especially risky for some babies. RSV can make them very sick, leading to a dangerous condition.18

Long-term Effects

Severe RSV could increase asthma risk for kids.18 RSV can also lead to other issues like repeated infections and asthma.1


In conclusion, RSV is a common virus that often causes mild cold symptoms. But it can be dangerous, especially for infants and older adults.15 It spreads through the air and touching infected surfaces. People at high risk are premature babies, those with heart or lung issues, and those with weak immune systems.15 There’s no specific antiviral treatment. Yet, supportive care and prevention, like using antibody products, vaccines, and good hygiene, are key in protecting the vulnerable from severe RSV.19

Understanding RSV is crucial. Taking steps to prevent and handle its threats, especially to vulnerable groups, is a must. By following trusted advice and staying informed, we can protect those at highest risk from getting seriously ill with RSV.

More research, education, and improved prevention are essential. Addressing RSV’s challenges is important for everyone’s health and to lessen the impact on healthcare. With a detailed plan, we can reduce the harm of RSV and enjoy a better quality of life.


What is RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)?

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus. It’s a common virus that causes cold-like symptoms. For most, it’s just a week or two of discomfort. But, it can hit hard, especially in infants and older adults.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

In adults and older kids, RSV often feels like a cold. It brings a runny nose, dry cough, and maybe a low fever. But, it can lead to worse symptoms like a fever, severe cough, and breathing trouble, making the skin appear blue. For infants, it can be very serious, showing as fast breathing, feeding problems, tiredness, and irritability.

How does RSV spread?

You can pick up RSV when an infected person coughs or sneezes near you. It also spreads through touch, like handshakes. The virus can live on hard surfaces for a while.

Who is at high risk for severe RSV infection?

Infants are most at risk, especially if they’re premature or under 6 months old. Also, children with heart or lung problems, and those with weak immune systems. Among adults, those with heart or lung issues are vulnerable, as are older adults.

How can RSV be prevented and treated?

Preventing RSV in young infants means considering some options. There’s nirsevimab (Beyfortus) and a vaccine for those expecting called Abrysvo. Adults 60 and over can get protected too, with vaccines like Abrysvo and Arexvy.Unhealthy habits promote RSV’s spread, so remember to wash hands, keep clean spaces, and don’t share drinks or smoke. While antivirals aren’t often used, looking after symptoms helps, like managing fever and ensuring enough fluid intake.

How does RSV relate to COVID-19?

Both RSV and COVID-19 are respiratory viruses, so they share some symptoms. Having RSV might make catching COVID-19 easier for both children and adults. Since they can happen at the same time, the impact on one’s illness can be quite serious.

Source Links

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/respiratory-syncytial-virus/symptoms-causes/syc-20353098
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459215/
  3. https://www.nfid.org/infectious-disease/rsv/
  4. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/rsv/symptoms-diagnosis
  5. https://medlineplus.gov/respiratorysyncytialvirusinfections.html
  6. https://www.labcorp.com/coronavirus-disease-covid-19/covid-news-education/covid-19-vs-flu-vs-rsv-how-tell-difference
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10582888/
  8. https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/respiratory_syncytial_virus/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258650/
  10. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/rsv/rsv-in-adults
  11. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fped.2022.1004739
  12. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/respiratory-syncytial-virus-rsv/prevention-risks.html
  13. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/rsv/treatment
  14. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/971488-treatment
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3461981/
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9961958/
  17. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/RSV-When-Its-More-Than-Just-a-Cold.aspx
  18. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions—pediatrics/r/respiratory-syncytial-virus-rsv-in-children.html
  19. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/472399_8