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Understanding RSV

By Nomi Health on January 20, 2023

Doctor hearing baby's heart

RSV season is here, and with it can come a lot of anxiety around this common illness. As a concerned parent, it’s easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed if your child contracts RSV. When dealing with RSV, it’s best to know what you’re up against, how you can protect your family, and how you can help your children get better if they do get infected. 

What Is RSV? 

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. Although it can be quite scary in vulnerable populations, RSV is a mild cold in adults and older children. RSV is very common, and most children will have contracted it by the time they reach two years of age. However, in older adults, infants younger than six months, and those who have previous respiratory problems and are immunocompromised, RSV can be quite dangerous and easily lead to hospitalization, and—in some cases—even death. Most RSV difficulties occur when the infection spreads to the lower respiratory system and causes additional complications like bronchiolitis and pneumonia.   

RSV Symptoms 

RSV symptoms share a lot of similarities with other colds. Symptoms include congestion, sore throat, headache, dry cough, and even a low-grade fever. When RSV becomes more severe, you may notice wheezing when exhaling, a bluish tone to the skin due to lack of oxygen, and rapid or difficult breathing. 

When infants have difficulty breathing, the skin below their neck or under their breastbone will seem to sink or tighten. This is known as retractions. Retractions are a sign of severe RSV in babies and should be monitored closely along with a prompt visit to your child’s pediatrician. Babies may also become lethargic and not eat well due to their congestion, which can lead to dehydration. 

Little girl coughing

RSV Timeline 

RSV symptoms peak around five days after first showing symptoms and most often improve by 10 days, although a cough can linger for as long as a month. With hospitalizations, the recovery timeline usually lengthens.   

RSV Treatments 

No respiratory syncytial virus vaccines or any specific treatments currently exist. However, there are some ways you can relieve symptoms until the virus has run its course. The most important thing you can do for your infant is make sure they stay hydrated and stay breathing easily. Keeping babies in upright positions when they are awake can help keep their congestion at bay. Restful sleep and over-the-counter medicines to fight off fevers and pain can also be helpful. However, always check with your pediatrician before giving your infant medication. 

Common Questions 

Can Adults Get RSV? 

Yes. Although it often still manifests as a common cold, adults can contract RSV and not feel too great themselves. Because RSV in adults is often mild and easily managed at home, adults usually only find out they have it if they end up needing medical intervention, or if their children test positive for RSV.  

When Is RSV Season? 

You can catch RSV year-round, but peak RSV season starts in the fall and ends in late spring.  

When Should I See a Doctor? 

You should see your doctor if you have any difficulty breathing. You should always take an infant in if they have any symptoms of RSV, as RSV can quickly complicate into something else. Your child’s pediatrician can check in regularly to monitor breathing and hydration and can also help you manage symptoms to prevent hospitalization.  

What Can I Do to Prevent RSV? 

RSV is very contagious and enters the body through your eyes, nose, and mouth, and can be spread in the air and through surfaces. The best thing you can do is make sure you and your family are washing your hands frequently and not touching your faces, especially after being in public places. When you have an infant, try to limit exposure around people and places where they could pick up RSV easily, and make sure older siblings wash their hands after school before interacting with the baby.  

Respiratory syncytial virus can cause an anxiety-ridden week. Prevention goes a long way in steering clear of this virus, but when it’s contracted, it’s best to consult with your doctor to ensure you are doing all you can to take care of yourself and your family.