Although it’s generally mild, RSV is also the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies. So it should always be taken seriously.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

A Common Condition

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that affects babies and children. It often occurs in yearly outbreaks in communities, school classrooms and daycare centers – usually in the winter and spring months. About 60% of infants will become infected with RSV during their first RSV season. It can be spread by coughing or sneezing, and symptoms usually appear about four to six days after a child is exposed to someone who is carrying it.

Although it’s common, it’s also the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies. It can also lead to severe respiratory illness and pneumonia, and may become life threatening, so it should always be taken seriously.

Breathe Easy

Your INTEGRIS Health family care physician or pediatrician is well-versed in the treatment of RSV and care for babies and children who develop the disease. You can trust him or her to keep an expert eye on the infection and take all the appropriate measures to make sure your little one weathers their RSV storm as comfortably and safely as possible.

What causes respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV is spread from respiratory secretions through close contact with infected persons or contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. Infection can occur when infectious material contacts mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth, or nose, and possibly through the inhalation of droplets generated by a sneeze or cough. The incubation period (time from exposure to symptoms) is about four to six days.

Who is affected by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV does not usually occur until a baby is 4 to 6 weeks old. However, because premature babies are born before receiving all of the mother's immunities, they are more susceptible. Babies can also be reinfected with the virus. RSV is slightly more common in boys than girls. Babies with chronic lung disease (a condition that may develop following respiratory disease as premature infants) are also at increased risk of developing RSV.

Why is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) a concern?

Infection with the virus can lead to severe respiratory illness and pneumonia, and may become life threatening. RSV in infancy may be related to development of asthma later in childhood.

What are the symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

The following are the most common symptoms of RSV. However, each baby may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • runny nose
  • apnea
  • listlessness
  • fever
  • poor feeding
  • wheezing
  • retractions (pulling in) of the chest wall
  • rapid breathing
  • cough

The symptoms of RSV may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your baby's physician for a diagnosis.

How is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) diagnosed?

Diagnosis is sometimes difficult because the symptoms of RSV can resemble other infections. Illness in other family members, other babies in the hospital nursery, or the time of year may provide clues. In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination of your child, a test (nasal swab or nasal wash) of the baby's respiratory secretions may show the presence of a virus.

Treatment for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV):

Specific treatment for RSV will be determined by your baby's physician based on:

  • your baby's age, overall health, and medical history
  • the extent of the condition
  • your baby's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

There are no medications used to treat the virus itself. Care of a baby with RSV involves treating the effects of the virus on the respiratory system. Because a virus causes the illness, antibiotics are not useful. Treatment may include:

  • supplemental oxygen
  • intravenous fluids (to prevent dehydration)
  • tube feedings (if the baby has difficulty sucking)
  • bronchodilator medications (to open the airways)
  • antiviral medications (for very sick or high-risk babies)

Prevention of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV):

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that babies at high risk for RSV receive the medication palivizumab to protect them against the serious complications of the illness. High-risk babies include those born prematurely and those with heart, lung, or neuromuscular diseases. Palivizumab is a monoclonal antibody that is usually given monthly during the RSV "season" from late fall through spring.

Palivizumab is not a vaccine and does not prevent the virus. But it does lessen the severity of the illness and may help shorten the hospital stay.