Respiratory Syncytial Virus: Definition, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and More


According to the American Lung Association respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious. Infants and older adults are more likely to develop severe RSV and need hospitalization.

What is RSV Virus?

RSV is a virus that mainly affects our breathing system, causing problems like bronchiolitis (when tiny airways in the lungs get swollen) and pneumonia (a lung infection). RSV is contagious and spreads when someone who has it coughs or sneezes. RSV is one of the most common viruses to cause lung and airways infections in infants and small children. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that each year in the United States, over 58,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized with RSV infections. The CDC also mentions that the virus is seasonal and is most commonly seen from September to May.

What are the Symptoms of RSV Virus?

Signs and symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus infection most commonly appear about four to six days after exposure to the virus. In adults and children, RSV usually causes mild cold-like signs and symptoms. These may include:

  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Severe fever
  • Severe cough
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing- a high pitched noise that’s usually heard on breathing out (exhaling)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Flaring (spreading out) of nostrils with every breath
  • Blue or gray color to their lips, mouth, and fingernails
  • Short, shallow slow or rapid breathing
  • Pauses while breathing
  • Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen (cyanosis)
  • Infants are the most severely affected by RSV
  • Short shallow and rapid breathing
  • Struggling to breath-chest muscles and skin pull inward with each breath
  • Cough
  • Fussiness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Minimal interest in activities
  • Decreased eating and drinking
  • Breathing faster than normal
  • Poor feeding
  • Unusual tiredness (lethargy)
  • Irritability

What are the Causes of RSV Virus?

RSV is a virus that spreads through close contact with someone who has it. If you’re near someone with RSV and they cough or sneeze, you could catch the virus. You can also get it by touching things like toys or door knobs that someone with the virus has touched recently.

What are the Risk Factors of RSV Virus?

By age 2, most children will have been infected with respiratory syncytial virus, but they can get infected by RSV more than once. People at increased the risk of severe or sometimes life-threatening RSV infections include:

  • Infants especially premature infants or babies who are 6 months or younger
  • Children who have a heart disease that’s present from birth (congenital heart disease) or chronic lung disease
  • Children or adults with weakened immune system from disease such as cancer or treatment such as chemotherapy
  • Children who have neuromuscular disorders, such as muscular dystrophy
  • Adults with heart disease or lung disease
  • Older adults, especially those age 65 and older

What is the Diagnosis of RSV Virus?

Laboratory and imaging tests aren’t usually needed. However, they can help diagnose respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) complications or rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests to check white cell counts or to look for viruses, bacteria and other germs
  • Chest X-rays to check for lung inflammation
  • Swab of secretions from inside the mouth or nose to check for signs of the virus
  • Pulse oximetry, a painless skin monitor, to detect lower than normal levels of oxygen in the blood

What is the Treatment of RSV Virus?

Treatment for respiratory syncytial virus generally involves self-care measures to make your child more comfortable (supportive care).

  • Hospital care
  • Self care
  • Intravenous fluids
  • Humidified oxygen
  • Breathing machine
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Self care
  • Create moist air to breath
  • Drinks fluids
  • Try saline nasal drops
  • Use over the counter pain relievers
  • Stay away from cigarette smoke

What are the Complications of RSV Virus?

Complications of respiratory syncytial virus include:


A severe RSV infection may require a hospital stay so that doctors can monitor and treat breathing problems and give intravenous fluids.


RSV is the common cause of inflammation of the lung or the lung’s airways in infants. These complications can occur when the virus spreads to the lower respiratory tract. Lung inflammation can be quite serious in infants, young children, older adults, immunocompromised individuals, or people with chronic heart or lung disease.

Middle Ear Infections:

If germs enter the space behind the eardrum, you can get middle ear infections (otitis media). This happens most frequently in babies and young children.


There may be a link between severe RSV in children and the chance of developing asthma later in life.

Repeated Infections:

Once you’ve had RSV you could get infected again. It’s even possible for it to happen during the same RSV reason. However, symptoms usually aren’t as severe; typically it’s in the form of a common cold. But they can be serious in older adults or in people with chronic heart or lung disease.

What is the Prevention of RSV Virus?

There is no cure for RSV, but you can lower your risk of getting and spreading it. RSV spreads like other viruses, through tiny droplets in the air or no surfaces. You can minimize your risk of contracting the virus by:

  • Protection for babies and high risk young children
  • Antibody product called nirsevimab (Beyfortus)

These lifestyle habits can help prevent the spread of this infection. Such as:

Wash Your Hands:

Keep your hands clean especially before touching the babies.

Avoid Exposure:

Remember to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. Also, try to limit your baby’s contact with people who have fevers or colds.

Keep Things Clean:

Be sure to clean kitchen and bathroom countertops, doorknobs, and handles regularly. Dispose of used tissues promptly by putting them in the trash right away.

Don’t Share Drinking Glasses with Others:

When someone else is sick, use your own glass or disposable cups. Be sure to label each person’s cup to avoid sharing and minimize the spread of germs.

Don’t Smoke:

Babies exposed to tobacco smoke are at a higher risk of contracting RSV and may experience more severe symptoms. If you smoke, it’s crucial to never do so inside the house or car to protect your child’s health.

Wash Toys Regularly:

Do this especially when your child’s playmate is sick.

Stay Away:

If someone has RSV they should keep away from babies and older people.


While there isn’t a specific RSV shot, other vaccines like the flu vaccines can help prevent problems.

Good Habits:

Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze to stop RSV from spreading.

What to Notice About High-Risk Category?

While anyone can get RSV, it’s most serious for babies, older people, and those with weaker immune systems. Babies born early and people with heart or lung issues are at higher risk. According to the CDC, most children contract RSV by the age of 2, but it can also take up to 2 weeks to recover from the virus. High-risk groups may become very sick and develop pneumonia or bronchiolitis. There are two categories of people who doctors consider to be at high risk of serious or severe RSV: Infants and young children, and older adults. Children who are at risk include:

  • Premature babies
  • Infants under 6 months of age
  • Children under 2 who have chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease
  • Those with weakened immune systems
  • Children who have neuromuscular conditions

Adults who are at risk include those:

  • With chronic heart and lung disease
  • With weakened immune system

Sometimes, RSV can lead to other conditions worsening including asthma, congestive heart palpitations, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Adults who experience severe cases of RSV may need to receive treatment in a hospital. For adults over 65, a weakened immune system places them at high risk of complications.

What is the Period of RSV Virus?

RSV infections are typically contagious for about 3-8 days. In infants under 6 months and individuals with weakened immune system, the virus might remain contagious for up to 4 weeks, even after symptoms have disappeared. Individuals with no fundamental medical conditions typically recover within 1-2 weeks.

Vaccine for Different Variants:

Common side effects, in clinical trials, RSV vaccines and passive immunization (monoclonal antibody products) were shown to be safe and effective at preventing RSV-associated lower respiratory tract disease. However, like any medicine, vaccine and monoclonal antibody products can have side effects. So there are vaccines for different variants, Such as:

Vaccine For Pregnant People:

The FDA has approved a vaccine called Abrysvo for pregnant individuals to prevent RSV in infants from birth to 6 months old. Abrysvo is given as a single shot sometime between 32 to 36 weeks of pregnancy, between September and January in the U.S.

Vaccine For Older Adults:

Older adults, especially those with ongoing conditions like heart or lung disease, have weaker immune systems. To help prevent RSV infection the FDA has approved RSV vaccine for adults aged 60 and older. The CDC recommended that adults in this age group discuss with their healthcare professional about getting an RSV vaccine, especially if they’re at higher risk of severe RSV. Two vaccines are available for this age group are ABRYSVO and AREXVY. The CDC does not recommend one over the both. Both are single dose shots. Discuss the benefits and risks of RSV vaccines with your healthcare team based on your situation.

What are the Types of Vaccines?

Infants and older adults are at high risk of developing severe RSV and may require hospitalization. There are vaccines designed to protect older adults from severe RSV, while monoclonal antibody products are available to protect infants and young children from severe RSV. There are two types of vaccines available. Such as:

ABRYSVO Vaccine:

ABRYSVO is a vaccine recommended for pregnant individuals between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. It aims to prevent lower respiratory tract disease (LRTD) and severe (LRTD) caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in infants from birth through 6 months of age. This recommendation is effective from September 14,2023.

AREXVY vaccine:

AREXVY is a vaccine designed to actively immunize adults aged 60 years and older against lower respiratory tract disease (LRTD) caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Its use should align with official recommendations.

What is the Difference Between RSV Virus and COVID-19?

Because RSV and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are both types of respiratory viruses, some symptoms of RSV and (COVID-19) can be similar. In children, (COVID-19) often results in mild symptoms such as a fever, runny nose, and a cough. For adults with (COVID-19) symptoms may be more severe and may include trouble breathing. Having RSV may lower immunity and increase the risk of getting (COVID-19) for kids and adults. These infections may occur together which can worsen the sensitivity of (COVID-19) illness.

How Did They Diagnose?

COVID-19: Molecular and antigen tests are available for COVID-19 too. These tests detect the proteins and genetic material of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Most at home COVID-19 tests are antigen tests. If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, it’s important to get tested right away, either at home or at a nearby clinic. If you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, it’s best to wait 5 days before testing, as early testing may not give accurate results. Similar to the flu, antiviral treatments for COVID-19 work when better started early, so testing should be done as soon as possible.

RSV Virus: Infections with RSV are very common, especially in children, so many people aren’t tested for the virus unless they’re at high risk of getting seriously ill. If testing is necessary, molecular and antigen tests are the most common ones used.

How Are They Treated?

COVID-19: People at high risk of severe COVID-19 illness be prescribed antiviral medications like:

  • Nirmatrelvir with ritonavir (Paxlovid)
  • Remdesivir (Veklury)
  • Molnupiravir (Lagevrio)

The choice of treatment depends on factors like your age, how recently your symptoms started, and other medications you may be taking. For individuals with weakened immune systems who develop COVID-19, convalescent plasma may be used to prevent the infection from worsening. However, this treatment is typically considered only when other treatments are not effective. Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 can help prevent illness or reduce the severity of symptoms if you do become infected.


What are the two types of RSV?

Human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has two main subtypes, A and B, which are distinguished by changes in their antigenic properties, particularly in the RSV-G protein sequence. These changes occur due to genetic variants in the virus, including within the RSV-F gene, RSV is a widespread cause of lower respiratory tract infections affecting individuals of all ages around the world.

Is RSV easy to cure?

There is no specific treatment for mild or moderate RSV, but drinking fluids, taking over-the counter medication, and resting can help. Severe cases may require antiviral medication or other treatments.

Is RSV a dry cough?

In adults and older children RSV usually causes mild cold-like signs and symptoms. These may include: Congested or runny nose, dry cough.

Can you get RSV twice?

Yes, you can get RSV more than once in the same cold and flu season. But it’s not as common to get RSV twice in the same season since your immune response to RSV can last several weeks. If you do get RSV multiple times in the same season, your symptoms will be less severe.

Why is RSV so bad?

RSV infections in adults can trigger acute myocardial infarction, stroke, and can exacerbate asthma and chronic cardiopulmonary disease, or COPD. RSV infection rates are nearly two times higher in patients with COPD as compared to others.

Is cold fresh air good for RSV?

A significant number of patients have recurrent episodes or bronchiolitis and wheezing and may develop asthma later in life. Avoidance of exposure to tobacco smoke, cold air and air pollutants is also beneficial to long term recovery from RSV infection.

Is the RSV vaccine safe?

Common side effects, in clinical trials RSV vaccines and passive immunizations (monoclonal antibody products) were shown to be safe and effective at preventing RSV-associated lower respiratory tract disease. However, like any medicine, vaccines and monoclonal antibody products can have side effects.

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