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What Is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus


Updated July 02, 2014

Mother blowing daughter's nose with tissue in kitchen
Bernhard Lang/The Image Bank/Getty Images

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a virus that causes cold-like symptoms in most people, but can cause serious illness in young infants. Most infants who suffer serious complications from RSV are under 6 months old. It is also the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under 12 months old.

What Are the Symptoms of RSV?

The symptoms of RSV are very similar to those of a cold in a child. They can include:

How Is RSV Spread?

RSV is spread through contact and droplet transmission. Anyone who comes into contact with the nasal or oral secretions of someone infected with RSV can transmit it to themselves as a result.

What is the Treatment?

For most children, RSV causes only cold-like symptoms, so the treatment is no different than treating any other cold in a child.

For some people, especially young infants, RSV can cause difficulty breathing, and treatment may include oxygen therapy, breathing treatments or mechanical ventilation.

Treatment is based on severity of the symptoms. If one is experiencing difficulty breathing, it is very important to seek medical attention immediately.

Signs of difficulty breathing in young infants (under 6 months old) include:

  • Nasal flaring
    Flaring of the nostrils in and out with each breathe (looks similar to that of an angry bull).
  • Retracting
    Appears as though the skin around the rib cage is pulling in and out between each rib with each breath. It give a "skeletal" appearance, and you may be able to count some ribs because they are so visible.
  • Excessive congestion
    The infant may seem to be almost constantly choking or gagging on secretions and have difficulty clearing the congestion.
  • Difficulty feeding
    True difficulty sucking, not just a decrease in the amount the child is eating, may indicate difficulty breathing. If the infant seems to choke and gag while sucking on a bottle or breastfeeding, or if he seems hungry but then gets frustrated and cries when trying to eat, this may also indicate difficulty breathing.

How Can RSV Be Prevented?

There is no vaccine against RSV, although researchers are hard at work trying to develop one. At this time, the best protection against RSV is good hand hygiene.

The best things to do to help prevent RSV in your infant:

  • Make sure anyone who touches your baby washes his/her hands first.
  • Keep your baby away from anyone who is sick, especially with cold symptoms or a fever.
  • Keep your baby away from crowds and large groups.
  • Keep your baby away from tobacco smoke and secondhand smoke.
  • Minimize participation in childcare during flu season whenever possible (for infants at high risk for RSV).
  • All household contacts and infants over six months old should get a flu shot as soon as they are available every year.

Other tips for preventing common illnesses, such as covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, may also help minimize the chance of catching or spreading RSV to those at highest risk.


There is an injection, called Synagis, available for very premature babies and other high-risk infants that helps boost a child's immune system. It is typically given monthly during flu season until the child reaches his second birthday. Although Synagis is not a vaccine, if your child is at very high risk for RSV, your doctor may discuss this option with you.


"Respiratory Syncytial Virus." National Center for Infectious Diseases. Respiratory and Enteric Viruses Branch 21 Jan 05. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 30 Dec 07.

"What is RSV and how can I protect my child from getting it?" Parenting Corner Q&A: RSV Feb 07. American Academy of Pediatrics. 30 Dec 07.

Meissner, C.H et al. "Revised Indications for the Use of Palivizumab and Respiratory Syncytial Virus Immune Globulin Intravenous for the Prevention of Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections." Pediatrics Vol. 112 No. 6. Dec 03. American Academy of Pediatrics Policy. 04 Jan 08.

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