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What is RSV?

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial [sin-SISH-uh l] virus, a common virus that affects the lungs. It spreads easily from one person to another by coughs, sneezes, and touching things that an infected person touched. RSV infections are most common in the winter and early spring. Most people with RSV infection have a mild, cold-like illness and get better in 1 to 2 weeks. In some people, RSV infection causes more serious illness that might require hospitalization.

People who are at risk for more severe RSV infection include:

  • Babies, especially babies born too soon and babies who have heart problems or other lung problems
  • Adults with asthma, congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Elderly people who live in long-term care facilities
  • People who have weaker immune systems because of HIV/AIDS, an organ transplant, or leukemia
  • Children in daycare


Symptoms of RSV infection usually start about 4 to 6 days after exposure to the virus. Symptoms can include:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever (less than 101º F)
  • Sore throat
  • Mild headache

In very young children, the only symptoms of RSV infection might be fussiness or trouble breathing.

When RSV infection is more severe, symptoms can include:

  • High fever (more than 103º F)
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing (a high-pitched noise when breathing out)
  • Having trouble breathing
  • Breathing too fast
  • Turning blue around the mouth or on the fingernails
  • Apnea [AP-nee-uh] (stopping breathing) 

When to See a Doctor

Call your doctor right away if you or your child has any of these signs of severe RSV infection:

  • Trouble breathing
  • A fever of 103º F or higher
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • A cough that goes on day and night


RSV infection is caused by the respiratory syncytial virus that spreads easily between people. You can catch it when you breathe in tiny droplets in the air after someone with RSV coughs or sneezes near you. You can also catch it by touching something that a person with RSV has handled, or kissing someone with an RSV infection.

Diagnosis and Tests

Healthcare providers usually diagnose RSV by taking a medical history and doing a physical exam. If illness is severe, the provider may choose to verify the diagnosis by testing a sample of mucus.


There is no specific treatment for RSV infection. Fever can be treated with ibuprofen or acetaminophen if your doctor says this is okay for you or your child. It is also important to drink plenty of fluids when you or your child has RSV.

If you or your child needs to be hospitalized for RSV infection, you might get oxygen to help with breathing problems. Or a tube might be put in your or your child’s mouth and down to the lungs. This is called intubation [IN-too-BEY-shun] and helps with breathing.


Here are some steps you can take to help make sure you or your child doesn’t catch RSV:

  • Stay away from people who are sick with a cold or fever.
  • Avoid crowded places if you can.
  • Ask people to wash their hands before they touch your child.
  • Use a disinfectant to clean toys, doorknobs, and other things that people touch often.
  • Avoid being around people who smoke. Tobacco smoke can carry RSV.
  • Ask your doctor about preventive medicine if you are concerned about your child’s risk for RSV. A medicine (called palivizumab) is available in a series of monthly shots to help prevent RSV infections in certain people. A doctor may give the medicine during RSV season to infants and young children who have a higher risk for serious illness caused by RSV.
RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus, a common virus that affects the lungs. The virus spreads easily between people and occurs most often during the cold and flu season (November to April). It usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but in young children and older people, it can be more serious. Complications of RSV infection can include the lung diseases pneumonia [noo-MOHN-yuh] and bronchiolitis [brong-kee-oh-LAHY-tis]. Some people with RSV infection must be hospitalized.