Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It's so common that most children have been infected with the virus by age 2. Respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-ul) virus can also infect adults.
In adults and older, healthy children, the symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus are mild and typically mimic the common cold. Self-care measures are usually all that's needed to relieve any discomfort.
Infection with respiratory syncytial virus can be severe in some cases, especially in premature babies and infants with underlying health conditions. RSV can also become serious in older adults, adults with heart and lung diseases, or anyone with a very weak immune system (immunocompromised).
Signs and symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus infection typically appear about four to six days after exposure to the virus. In adults and older children, RSV usually causes mild cold-like signs and symptoms. These include:
In severe cases
Infants are most severely affected by RSV. They may markedly draw in their chest muscles and the skin between their ribs, indicating that they're having trouble breathing, and their breathing may be short, shallow and rapid. They may cough. Or they may show few, if any, signs of a respiratory tract infection, but will eat poorly and be unusually lethargic and irritable.
Most children and adults recover from the illness in one to two weeks. But in young babies, infants born prematurely, or infants or adults who have chronic heart or lung problems, the virus may cause a more severe — occasionally life-threatening — infection that requires hospitalization.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical attention if your child — or anyone at risk of severe disease — experiences difficulty breathing, runs a high fever or turns blue, particularly on the lips and in the nail beds.
Respiratory syncytial virus enters your body through your eyes, nose or mouth. It spreads easily when infectious respiratory secretions — such as those from coughing or sneezing — are inhaled or passed to others through direct contact, such as shaking hands. The virus can also live for hours on objects such as countertops and toys. Touch your mouth, nose or eyes after touching a contaminated object, and you're likely to acquire the virus.
An infected person is most contagious in the first few days after infection, but respiratory syncytial virus may spread for up to a few weeks after the start of infection.
By age 2, most children will have been infected with respiratory syncytial virus. Children who attend child care centers or who have siblings who attend school are at a higher risk of exposure. So are infants who are exposed to high levels of air pollution or cigarette smoke. Susceptibility is also greater during the peak RSV season, which typically begins in the fall and ends in the spring.
People at increased risk of severe — sometimes life-threatening — infections include:
Complications of respiratory syncytial virus include:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or your child's doctor. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
For respiratory syncytial virus, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor may suspect respiratory syncytial virus based on a physical exam and the time of year of the infection. During the exam, he or she may listen to the lungs with a stethoscope to check for wheezing or other abnormal sounds.
Your doctor may also use:
Treatments and drugs
Treatment for respiratory syncytial virus generally involves self-care measures to make your child more comfortable (supportive care). But in severe cases, hospital care may be needed.
Otherwise, keep your child as comfortable as possible. Offer plenty of fluids and watch for signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, little to no urine output, sunken eyes and extreme fussiness or sleepiness.
In some severe cases, a nebulized bronchodilator such as albuterol (Proventil, Ventolin) may be used to relieve wheezing. This medication opens air passages in the lungs. Nebulized means it's administered as a fine mist that you breathe in. Occasionally, a nebulized form of ribavirin (Rebetol), an antiviral agent, may be used. Your doctor may also recommend an injection of epinephrine or a form of epinephrine that can be inhaled through a nebulizer (racemic epinephrine) to relieve symptoms of RSV infection.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You may not be able to shorten the duration of a respiratory syncytial virus infection, but you can try to relieve some signs and symptoms.
If your child has the infection, do your best to comfort or distract him or her — cuddle, read a book or play a quiet game. Other tips for relieving symptoms include:
No vaccine exists for respiratory syncytial virus. But common-sense precautions can help prevent the spread of this infection:
Scientists are working to find a vaccine against the respiratory syncytial virus not only in infants but also in older adults and high-risk adults.
Last Updated: 2011-07-29
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