What’s the deal with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a virus that causes upper and lowers respiratory tract infections. Symptoms may be mild, cold-like, or more serious, especially for infants or older adults. This year, it has been significantly affecting toddlers and older children as well. One of the respiratory syncytial virus characteristics is the change in appearance in the lung cells that occurs when there is an RSV infection. The virus is named “syncytial” based on the change in appearance that cells in the respiratory tract undergo when they’re infected by the virus since “syncytial” is a Greek term for a cluster of cells.

RSV primarily affects children

RSV is one of the most common viruses in the world.  While it can affect people of all ages, RSV is more common in children ages 24 months old and younger, and it’s more likely to cause serious complications in children who are 12 months and younger. Most children are exposed to the virus in school or daycare centers due to the close proximity of these situations. Children generally get RSV at least once before the age of two. RSV tends to be more serious in young children because their immune systems are less mature, and their airways are narrower than the airways of older children and adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis or inflammation of the airways in the lungs.

Adults and RSV

Most healthy adults will only experience mild symptoms with RSV and typically recover within a week or two. 

However, some adults may be at risk of complications — particularly those over the age of 65 or immunocompromised. RSV can lead to worsening respiratory conditions like asthma, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The CDC estimates that over 100,000 adults are hospitalized, and up to 10,000 adults die from RSV annually. 

Is RSV contagious? 

Similar to other respiratory viruses, RSV is contagious. It circulates primarily during the fall or winter, along with the flu. 

RSV spreads when you have direct contact with someone infected with the virus. Infection is likely to occur when virus droplets get in your eyes, nose, or mouth from people coughing or sneezing. Most people are contagious for 3 to 8 days and may be contagious a few days before they show any symptoms. 

Since RSV is spread through droplets, you can also get it from touching infected surfaces. It can survive for several hours on hard surfaces. 

Symptoms of RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus symptoms are similar to that of a common cold. RSV may cause a stuffy nose, dry cough, low-grade fever, sore throat, decreased appetite and mild headaches.

RSV can be more severe in younger children and patients with underlying respiratory diseases or compromised immune systems. RSV symptoms in children or high-risk adults can include wheezing, fever, low oxygen saturation, respiratory distress and dehydration.  If respiratory problems become severe, particularly in infants or younger children, they may require emergency medical care. If your child has RSV, look for signs of difficulty breathing or dehydration. 


Viral testing will, for the most part, not be needed as it will not change the management. Management is based on addressing the symptoms. If there is a need to test, the healthcare provider may request a nasal swab to check for RSV or other circulating respiratory viruses)

If complications arise and hospitalization is required, additional tests like chest X-rays, urine tests, or blood tests may be necessary.

How long does RSV last?

For most adults, symptoms of RSV are mild and typically last two to eight days. Some children may stay ill for up to two weeks but should fully recover after two weeks.

If complications arise from an RSV infection or hospitalization is required, then recovery may take longer. 

Tips for prevention

Preventing RSV infection requires similar precautions as other respiratory illnesses. These include: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who have RSV
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid sharing cups or utensils
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces frequently, particularly those that are touched often
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow when sneezing or coughing
  • Do not sneeze or cough into your hand
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Get enough sleep
  • Stay home if you are sick and keep your children home from daycare if they are ill
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer if washing is not possible

While you can’t always prevent infection, staying healthy during the fall and winter is the best way to support your immune system if you do get sick.

Testing and treatment for RSV

If RSV is suspected in someone experiencing significant symptoms, the diagnosis can be confirmed with a nasal swab.

There is no specific cure for RSV.  In otherwise healthy patients, the infection resolves on its own within 1-2 weeks.  Patients with significant symptoms can be treated with cough suppressants, nebulizer treatments, oxygen supplementation, and medications for pain and fever.

The rate of RSV infections typically peaks during the U.S.’s cold and flu season, with most infections occurring in January and February each year.

Researchers are working to develop a vaccine for RSV, but it’s not available yet.  In the meantime, you can diminish the risk of RSV transmission by washing your hands frequently, covering your mouth when you cough, frequently disinfecting hard surfaces and avoiding contact with anyone who is experiencing symptoms consistent with RSV.

Visit urgent care for RSV treatment

There may be several respiratory viruses going around this fall and winter, and it is possible to come down with multiple viruses at once. As we move into flu season, COVID-19 also continues to circulate. People may get infected with RSV, COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, which could make symptoms more severe. 

Visit one of our urgent care locations to diagnose and treat respiratory illnesses. We’re open seven days a week, offering same-day care for illnesses and injuries for patients of all ages. Just walk in, save your spot online or schedule a Virtual Visit at a center near you.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant