What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

  • RSV stands for "Respiratory Syncytial Virus"
  • This is a very common type of cold virus that affects many people. Infants and young children are especially at risk to contract RSV.
  • RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, an infection of the small airways in the lungs
  • RSV can also cause pneumonia
  • It is a cause of hospitalization for many young children, and some children die of RSV

What are the Signs/Symptoms of RSV?

  • RSV can cause:
    • Congestion/stuffiness
    • Runny nose
    • Sneezing
    • Coughing
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Wheezing
    • Fever
    • Poor feeding
    • Tiredness
    • Apnea - some babies completely stop breathing
  • The severity of infection and the resulting signs and symptoms can vary depending on the age of the child, other health conditions, and whether the child has had a previous RSV infection

Who Is at Risk for Getting RSV?

  • Infants and young children are the most at risk to get RSV
  • Risk factors for severe RSV:
    • Premature babies
    • Children less than 2 years old who have lung disease or heart disease
    • Adults 65 years and older
    • People with weakened immune systems
  • It is debated whether exposure to cigarette smoking increases the risk of getting RSV. However, second-hand smoke increases the risk of other infections.

How Is RSV Spread?

  • RSV is spread by coughing and sneezing
  • A child can get RSV by touching a surface that has RSV on it, and then touching his or her eyes, nose, or mouth

How is RSV Diagnosed?

  • RSV is diagnosed by a doctor: A doctor can diagnose RSV by examining a child, listening to the child’s lungs, and hearing a description of symptoms.
  • Sometimes lab work is sent to see if the child has RSV
  • Sometimes a chest x-ray is performed to see if the child has pneumonia

How Is RSV Treated?

  • RSV is treated with "supportive care." This means that while there is no cure for RSV, there are ways to help the symptoms.
  • For example, if the baby is having problems eating, the baby might need fluids through an intravenous (IV) line or through a temporary feeding tube
  • If the child has problems breathing, supplemental oxygen may be needed. In especially bad cases, a child may need a temporary breathing tube.
  • Sometimes medicines may be tried to help improve the symptoms

What Complications Can RSV cause?

  • In the majority of cases, RSV does not cause lifelong problems
  • There is some debate, however, about whether RSV infection early in life can cause asthma
  • In severe cases, RSV can cause lifelong health problems

How Can RSV Be Prevented?

  • Good hand washing
  • Avoiding touching the face, eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoiding close contact with sick people
  • Covering coughs and sneezes
  • Cleaning surfaces that people frequently touch (doorknobs, counters, toys)
  • Staying home if the child is sick so that others won’t also get sick
  • The medicine Palivizumab (brand name: Synagis), given in shot form, helps to prevent RSV in those who are at highest risk of having severe disease
  • Risk factors for severe RSV:
    • Only certain babies qualify for this medicine, and it is VERY important that those babies that qualify are able to receive it. It is considered medical neglect if a child does not receive the recommended Palivizumab, and a ChildLine will be filed.
  • Breastfeeding can help prevent many types of illnesses, including RSV

Jennifer E. Wolford, DO, MPH, FAAP
Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh,
Division of Child Advocacy

Rachel P. Berger, MD, MPH
Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh,
Division of Child Advocacy

Adelaide L. Eichman, MD
Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh,
Division of Child Advocacy

Content Sources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. "Protect Against Respiratory Syncytial Virus." www.cdc.gov/features/rsv/
Mayo Clinic Staff. "Bronchiolitis." www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchiolitis/
Piedimonte, G., and M. K. Perez. 2014. "Respiratory syncytial virus infection and bronchiolitis." Pediatrics in Review 35(12): 519-30.

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