RSV: What You Need to Know

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is one of the most frequent causes of the common cold. It’s usually a minor illness, but RSV can lead to severe lung infections, hospitalization and even death in infants and older adults. Here’s what you need to know about RSV from Lahey Hospital & Medical Center infectious disease prevention specialists.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 57,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized in the United States due to RSV infection each year. About 177,000 older U.S. adults are hospitalized annually with an RSV infection, and about 14,000 of them die from it. There is currently no vaccine to prevent RSV, but researchers are working on developing one.

RSV spreads via droplets from coughing or sneezing, kissing and through touching contaminated surfaces. Its symptoms can include a runny nose, sore throat, a decrease in appetite, cough, wheezing and sometimes fever.

While the symptoms are uncomfortable, RSV usually resolves without treatment in three to eight days. However, in infants, RSV can cause severe infections such as bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lung, or pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. In older adults, it may worsen existing heart or lung conditions or weakened immune systems.

When to Seek Treatment

In most cases, individuals infected with RSV require no specific treatment other than over-the-counter medication to help with symptoms or acetaminophen to control fever. Using a bump syringe to clear mucus from an infant’s nose may temporarily improve breathing.

Contact your physician if your child is under 6 months of age and has a cold, breathing problems such as wheezing or coughing, or seems very sick and has trouble eating, drinking or sleeping. Older adults, especially age 65 and older with chronic heart or lung disease or weakened immune systems, should also contact their physician if they have the same symptoms.

Prevent the Spread

Since vaccines have not yet been developed for RSV, preventing the spread of the illness is especially important. Measures to prevent the spread of RSV include:

  • Practice hand hygiene with soap and water or alcohol hand rub
  • Keep your hands off of your face

  • Avoid close contact with sick people

  • Use good cough etiquette — cover your mouth with your elbow

  • Clean and disinfect surfaces such as doorknobs, computer keyboards, remote controls, etc.

  • Stay home if you are sick.

For more information on RSV, visit the CDC’s RSV page.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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