RSV, short for respiratory syncytial virus, is a very common virus that usually leads to mild cold-like symptoms, with most people recovering at home in a few weeks. RSV can be more serious in infants and young children who might need treatment in a hospital. With COVID-19 still looming and flu season underway, it can be challenging to tell viruses apart. As with any other virus, understanding how to protect yourself and your loved ones can go a long way.
Here, Dr. Gary Greensweig, Chief Physician Executive for the Physician Enterprise at CommonSpirit Health addresses some common questions and answers to help you understand the virus and the steps to take to stay healthy:
What are the first signs of RSV?
Symptoms vary depending on age. For instance, older children usually experience common cold symptoms, such as a runny nose, low-grade fever, or barking cough. While very young infants may be irritable, sluggish, and have trouble breathing. In severe cases, infants may turn blue due to the lack of oxygen. Symptoms usually show up 4 to 8 days after infection.
How contagious is RSV?
RSV spreads easily between people. A sick person can spread the virus when they cough, sneeze or blow their nose near others. The virus can also spread when someone touches their face after touching an object contaminated with the virus, such as a toy or doorknob. People are most contagious during the time they are showing symptoms, which is usually for up to a week. If you’re around someone with RSV, washing your hands often is important to limit the spread.
How long does RSV usually last?
Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two. Because RSV is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not used to treat it. Bronchodilators are sometimes used in children who are wheezing or having difficulty breathing. In more severe cases, treatment may include supplemental oxygen, fluids through a vein, and a ventilator.
How do people get RSV?
Most people get RSV as babies, and almost all children get it by the time they turn 2–which they usually catch in school or daycares. Babies born right before or during the pandemic may not have built enough immunity due to masking and social distancing. That, according to experts, may explain the recent surge in cases. For many children under 2, this may be their first time going to daycare or traveling. This is also when many parents are returning to the office and potentially bringing viruses home.
Who’s at risk of complications?
While most people get RSV during early childhood, repeat infections are possible. That means that people of any age can be infected. Certain children and older adults may be more prone to complications, including:
- Premature infants
- Young children born with heart or chronic lung disease
- Young children with weakened immune systems due to a medical condition or medical treatment
- Children with neuromuscular disorders
- Adults with compromised immune systems
- Older adults, especially those with underlying heart or lung disease
How can you tell RSV, the flu, and the common cold apart?
RSV is most common from fall to spring, which lines up with the flu and cold season. The symptoms of all three viruses are very similar in mild cases, so you won’t be able to tell what it is on your own. If your child is younger than six months, you should speak with your doctor or advanced practice provider as soon as symptoms appear. Older, healthy children or adults with no underlying conditions should get plenty of rest and fluids and take over-the-counter medication to relieve symptoms. Beware of giving children cold medicines before consulting your doctor. And as with other infectious diseases, the best way to prevent the spread is to wash your hands often, cover your coughs and clean surfaces.
When should I go to the hospital or call a doctor?
Breathing problems are cause for concern and require immediate medical help. Other signs you should watch out for include difficulty breathing, high fever, shortness of breath, or a bluish tint to the skin.