Respiratory syncytial virus is highly contagious. It spreads through droplets containing
the virus when someone coughs or sneezes. It also can live on surfaces (like counters
or doorknobs) and on hands and clothing. So people can get it if they touch something
RSV can spread quickly through schools and childcare centers. Babies often get
it when older kids carry the virus home from school and pass it to them. Almost all
kids have had RSV at least once by the time they're 2 years old.
RSV infections often happen in epidemics that last from late fall through early
spring. Respiratory illness caused by RSV — such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia — usually
lasts about a week, but some cases may last several weeks.
How Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus Diagnosed?
Doctors usually diagnose respiratory syncytial virus by taking a
and doing an exam. In most healthy kids, they don't need to distinguish
RSV from a common cold.
But if a child has other health conditions, the doctor might want to make a specific
RSV diagnosis. In that case, the virus is identified by testing nasal fluids.
The sample is collected either with a cotton swab or by suction through a bulb syringe.
How Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus Treated?
Most cases of respiratory syncytial virus are mild and don't need medical treatment
from doctors. Antibiotics aren't used because RSV is a virus and antibiotics work
only against bacteria. Sometimes, doctors give medicine to help open airways.
RSV infection can be more serious in babies, though. Some might need treatment
in a hospital. There, they can be watched closely and get fluids, if needed, and
treatment for any breathing problems.
Make your child as comfortable as possible.
Allow time for recovery.
Provide plenty of fluids. Babies may not feel like drinking, so offer fluids in
small amounts often.
Avoid hot-water and steam humidifiers, which can be hazardous and can cause scalding.
If you use a cool-mist humidifier, clean it daily with household bleach to prevent
mold and bacteria growth.
If your child is uncomfortable and too young to blow his or her own nose, use a
nasal aspirator (or bulb syringe) to remove sticky nasal fluids.
Treat fever using a
non-aspirin fever medicine like acetaminophen.
Aspirin should not be used in children with viral illnesses. Its
use has been linked to Reye
syndrome, a life-threatening illness.
Can Respiratory Syncytial Virus Be Prevented?
Because RSV can be easily spread by touching infected people or surfaces, washing
hands well and often is key in stopping it. Wash your hands after being around
someone who has cold symptoms. And school-age kids who have a cold should keep away
from younger siblings — especially babies — until their symptoms pass.
To prevent serious RSV-related respiratory disease, at-risk infants can get a monthly
injection of a medicine with RSV antibodies during peak RSV season (roughly November
to April). The protection it gives is short-lived, though. So they'll need injections
each RSV season until they're no longer at high risk for severe RSV infection. Ask
the doctor if your child is considered high risk.