Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that usually spikes in cases during the winter months. Unfortunately, this summer it’s unexpectedly spreading, especially in the Southern United States. The outbreak has been so concerning that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a health advisory about the spread of RSV in parts of the south.

What is respiratory syncytial virus?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Infection with RSV is common among young children and usually begins as a mild cold, but can cause severe breathing problems in premature babies, as well as infants and toddlers under the age of two who have chronic lung disease and chronic heart disease.

RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States.

What are the symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus?

Early symptoms of RSV include:

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

Because it’s often difficult to distinguish RSV from a common cold, here are some signs to look out for if you suspect your child’s cold may be more serious:

  1. Difficulty breathing: After one or two days, the virus can travel to the lungs, affecting the small airways (called bronchioles) that allow your child to breathe easily. Once the airways are affected you may notice faster breathing, flaring of the nostrils, sinking of the neck and sucking in of the ribs while breathing. These are indicators that your child is having difficulties moving air into and out of the lungs and needs to be seen by a doctor.
  2. Unusual behavior: RSV may cause your child to be more irritable, sleepy or uncomfortable than normal. Another cause for concern may be if your baby is not feeding well.

How is respiratory syncytial virus treated?

Most RSV infections go away on their own in one or two weeks. While there is no specific treatment for RSV, some things you can do to relieve symptoms are:

  1. Manage fever and pain with over the counter fever reducers and pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  2. Keep your child hydrated.Make sure your child drinks a lot of fluids to prevent dehydration.

How do I prevent my child from catching respiratory syncytial virus?

Preventing RSV can be very difficult, especially because it is spread in droplets of fluid from sneezing, coughing or laughing. Since the virus travels and lives on surfaces, washing your hands often and keeping infants away from children and adults who are exhibiting common cold symptoms can be extremely helpful. Breastfeeding and avoiding second-hand smoke also show natural benefits to possibly preventing RSV.

What is respirtatory syncytial virus (RSV) infographic

Download our respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infographic infographic here.


Linda Fu Linda Fu, MD, MS, was a general pediatrician at Children’s National.

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