What Parents Should Know About RSV

Photo: (Photo : Image by Manuel Darío Fuentes Hernández from Pixabay )

Respiratory syncytial virus infection or RSV is something parents should know about, especially right now. If your child becomes sick this fall and winter, having some background information on RSV may help you as you tell your child's doctor their symptoms.

Doctors have to be especially cautious right now to avoid a potentially wrong diagnosis which can delay treatment, as COVID-19 and RSV have similar symptoms.

The following are core things to know about this virus which primarily affects children.

What is RSV?

RSV is a respiratory virus. For most, it causes symptoms of a mild cold. The majority of people with the virus will recover in a week or maybe two, but for infants and older adults, it can be severe.

In June 2021, the CDC issued an advisory about rising RSV cases across the southern United States. Health care providers are being instructed to test for RSV in people of all ages who have symptoms of a respiratory illness.

This viral infection is the most frequent cause of an inflammatory reaction in the small airways in the lungs, a condition known as bronchiolitis. RSV also causes pneumonia in children younger than a year of age commonly in the U.S.

It takes most people anywhere from four to six days to show symptoms after they're infected.

Symptoms can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of appetite

For most, the symptoms don't occur all at once-they usually appear in stages. In infants, symptoms may be decreased activity, problems breathing and irritability.

The spread of RSV occurs when a child comes in contact with fluid from the mouth or nose of an infected person. A child might touch a contaminated surface and then touch their face, for example. Another way to contract it is by inhaling droplets from the sneeze or cough of someone infected.

There are often annual outbreaks of RSV in daycare centers, schools, and communities. It's most common in the winter and early spring.

Most children will have RSV by the time they're two years old.

Many of the steps you can take to prevent this type of infection are the same as what you generally do to protect your family from germs and illnesses. For example, if you have a baby, ask people to wash their hands before touching her. Keep babies out of large crowds, and don't kiss your baby if you have any cold symptoms.

Disinfect hard surfaces, and breastfeed your baby if possible. Breast milk contains antibodies and immune factors that can help your baby combat pathogens.

Treating RSV

There's no specific treatment for this viral infection, although antivirals and vaccines are currently being studied.

The only thing you can do early on is try and mitigate the symptoms. You might be able to use over-the-counter pain and fever reducers at the discretion of your child's pediatrician. Your child needs to consume enough fluids to reduce the risk of dehydration.

With RSV, antibiotics are used since it is a virus.


As we mentioned above, RSV is usually mild but can cause more severe health complications, including bronchiolitis.

Most healthy infants and adults don't need to be hospitalized if they have RSV. However, babies younger than six months and older people may need hospitalization for dehydration or if they're having trouble breathing. In the most severe of these cases, supplemental oxygen or intubation could be required.

Children at most significant risk of complications if they're infected with RSV include premature infants, infants who are six months or younger, and children under the age of two with chronic heart or lung diseases. Children with weakened immune systems are also considered high-risk for RSV.

RSV vs. COVID-19

A big question parents have right now is how to tell the difference between RSV and COVID-19 in children. The symptoms are very similar including coughing, wheezing, and a runny nose.

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses affecting the respiratory tract.

Symptoms that are more likely with COVID-19 than RSV include fever or chills, muscle and body aches, headache, sore throat, and loss of taste or smell.

During this cold and flu season, if you have children, it's a good idea to keep track in writing of symptoms and their timing.

Both illnesses spread the same way, neither have a specific treatment right now aside from managing symptoms, and both can lead to pneumonia. For children, RSV is often more likely to lead to complications, while for adults, COVID-19 is. Adults are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 if they're in their 50s and older and have underlying conditions like heart or lung disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system.

That can be extremely helpful to your child's healthcare provider as they work to make a diagnosis between RSV, COVID-19, or perhaps something else. 

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