RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)

 Physicians across Washington are seeing an unusually steep rise in the number of cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), particularly in children. We urge all Washingtonians to take preventive health measures to avoid the spread of these respiratory illnesses. 
Did you know graphic about RSV
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that spreads through contact with respiratory droplets (coughing, sneezing, or kissing). Even though RSV is often associated with mild, cold-like symptoms, it can be serious and can lead to severe illness. Anyone can get an RSV infection but those at highest risk for severe disease include premature infants and infants age 6 months and younger, those with chronic heart or lung disease, those with compromised immune systems, and older adults (65+).


Is RSV Contagious?

RSV is contagious and spreads just like a common cold virus - from one person to another, entering the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. It spreads easily through the air on infected respiratory droplets. Most commonly, the virus is spread in the following ways: 

  • Direct person-to-person contact with saliva, mucus, or nasal discharge.
  • Unclean hands (RSV can survive 30 minutes or more on unwashed hands).
  • Unclean objects or surfaces (RSV can survive up to 6 hours on surfaces, toys, keyboards, door knobs, etc.)

Symptoms of RSV graphic


RSV Symptoms

According to the CDC, symptoms can appear 4 to 6 days after contact with RSV. Symptoms of RSV infection usually include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties.

Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.



RSV Care

Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two. There is no cure for RSV and medications, like steroids and antibiotics, do not help with RSV. 

To help your child feel more comfortable, begin by doing what you would for any bad cold:

  • Manage fever and pain with over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Never give aspirin to children.
  • Drink lots of fluids. It is important to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • To allow easier breathing nasal saline with gentle suctioning may be used. Use of a cool-mist humidifier may help relieve breathing symptoms and break up mucus. 
  • Talk to your healthcare provider before giving your child non-prescription cold medicines. Some medicines contain ingredients that may not be good for children.

Who is at risk of RSV graphic


Risk Factors

By age 2, most children will have been infected with RSV, but they can get infected by RSV more than once. Children who attend childcare centers or who have siblings who attend school are at higher risk of exposure and reinfection.

RSV can make chronic health problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks as a result of RSV infection, and people with congestive heart failure may experience more severe symptoms triggered by RSV.

The following groups of people are at increased risk of severe and sometimes life-threatening RSV:

  • Infants, especially premature infants or babies who are 6 months or younger
  • Children who have heart disease that is present from birth (congenital heart disease) or chronic lung disease
  • Children or adults with weakened immune systems from diseases such as cancer or treatment such as chemotherapy
  • Children who have neuromuscular disorders, such as muscular dystrophy
  • Adults with heart disease or lung disease
  • Older adults, especially those aged 65 or older

Graphic: Recognize the Emergency Warning Signs of Respiratory Illness

Complications from RSV

Most people who get an RSV infection will have mild illness and will recover in a week or two. Some people, however, are more likely to develop severe RSV infection and may need to be hospitalized.

RSV can cause more severe infections such as bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. RSV is the most common cause of both bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year of age. Some children with RSV may be at an increased risk of developing a bacterial infection, such as an ear infection. 

Call your doctor right away if your child has any:

  • Symptoms of bronchiolitis
  • Symptoms of dehydration
  • Pauses or difficulty breathing
  • Gray or blue color to tongue, lips, or skin
  • Significantly decreased activity and alertness

Help prevent RSV graphic



Currently, no vaccine exists for RSV. The following lifestyle habits can help prevent the spread of this infection:

  • Wash your hands frequently. Teach your children the importance of hand-washing.
  • Avoid exposureCover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Limit your baby's contact with people who have fevers or colds. 
  • Keep things clean. Make sure your kitchen and bathroom countertops, doorknobs, and handles are clean. Discard used tissues right away.
  • Don't share drinking glasses with others. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or someone else is sick. Label each person's cup. 
  • Don't smoke. Babies who are exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of getting RSV and potentially more-severe symptoms. If you do smoke, never do so inside the house or car. 
  • Vaccinate. Keep your children up-to-date on their immunizations and get the whole family annual flu shots. Getting vaccinated with Tdap - to protect against whooping cough is especially important for adults who are around infants (new parents, grandparents, babysitters, nannies, etc.). It is also recommended that your child be immunized against COVID-19. 

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