Respiratory syncytial virus or RSV is most common in children, but can also affect adults. This infection of the lungs and respiratory tract causes congestion, sore throat, fever, headache, and other cold-like symptoms.
In rare cases, people with RSV need to be hospitalized, but in general, it's treated like a cold, with mild symptoms and at-home treatment. As with the common cold, covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing and washing your hands regularly can help prevent getting and spreading RSV.
Symptoms of RSV typically occur four to six days after the body comes in contact with the virus. Mild cases often have the same symptoms as the common cold: congested nose, coughing without mucus, sore throat, mild fever, and headache. Mild cases are most common in adults and older children.
Severe cases of RSV occur when the virus spreads to the lower respiratory tract, which causes inflammation of the small airways leading to the lungs. This is when pneumonia or bronchiolitis can develop.
Signs of severe RSV are fever, severe cough, difficulty breathing, wheezing when breathing out, and lack of oxygen, which causes blue skin of the lips and fingertips.
Unlike adults and older children, if an infant gets RSV, it's more likely to be severe. The most common sign is struggling to breathe. Other symptoms include rapid breathing, coughing, lack of appetite during feeding, and irritability.
It’s also important to watch for dehydration, which has symptoms such as a lack of tears when crying, little or no urine, and cool, dry skin.
Medical providers can diagnose RSV through a physical exam and tests. The doctor may listen to the lungs for wheezing or other abnormal sounds. If this examination is inconclusive, they may order blood tests, chest x-rays, or analyze a sample of fluid from the nose. Blood tests show viruses or bacteria through white cell counts, and chest x-rays show any inflammation of the lungs.
Rapid RSV antigen tests are the most common test for RSV. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are typically recommended for older children and adults.
Mild cases of RSV don't usually require special treatment, though the doctor may recommend over-the-counter medicine to relieve fever and saline drops to clear nasal congestion. You may also receive antibiotics if there is a secondary bacterial infection.
At home, always drink plenty of fluids to help the body keep fighting the virus and to prevent dehydration. While waiting for the infection to pass, signs such as sunken eyes, extreme irritability, and prolonged sleepiness, especially in young children, could indicate that the condition is getting worse.
Patients who are diagnosed with severe cases of RSV who have trouble breathing or are severely dehydrated may need to stay in the hospital to receive treatment. The most common hospital treatments include IV fluids and humidified oxygen, and ventilation to control breathing. In most cases, hospitalization is needed for a few days.
Using a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer will add moisture to the air, relieving congestion and coughing that are common with RSV. Around 50 percent humidity is recommended indoors.
Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and loosen secretions so the body can expel them. Soup and popsicles are a great alternative to drinking plain water and can help soothe an irritated or sore throat. Over-the-counter saline drops and pain relievers can also help reduce congestion and relieve muscle pain and sore throat.
As with many viruses, RSV is spread through airborne or direct contact. If a person sneezes, the germs can transfer to another person through mucous membranes in their eyes, nose, or mouth.
The virus can live on hard surfaces for several hours, so it's best to wash your hands and anything you touch frequently if you are feeling symptoms that could be due to RSV. Avoid physical contact such as shaking hands until you're feeling better.
The best way to prevent RSV is to wash your hands regularly and well and avoid touching your face. This will help reduce the risk of getting any viral infection.
Likewise, keep surfaces clean, including kitchen and bathroom countertops, crib rails, and toys. Don't share drinks with others and opt to stay home if you or someone you plan to visit is feeling unwell.
If you think your symptoms might indicate a more severe case of RSV, make an appointment with a doctor. Be prepared to list the symptoms you've had and your medical history, including medications you're taking and any allergies.
Also, make note of any questions you have for the doctor.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.