About Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common viral infection. Almost all infants get RSV before the age of 2 (24 months). Most babies recover within eight to 15 days. Symptoms usually appear within four to six days after exposure to the virus. 

What are the symptoms of RSV?

RSV primarily infects the lungs and breathing passages and causes cold-like symptoms, including:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Mild headache

In severe cases, RSV can lead to a lower respiratory tract illness such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis. Signs and symptoms of a more severe RSV infection may include:

  • Fever
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing — a high-pitched noise that's usually heard on breathing out (exhaling)
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing, which may make the child prefer to sit up rather than lie down
  • Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen (cyanosis)

Who is at risk of developing RSV?

Infants born prematurely, or infants or adults who have chronic heart or lung problems, may experience a more severe — occasionally life-threatening — infection that requires hospitalization.

Is there a “season” for RSV outbreaks?

Babies can get RSV at any time of year, but it's more common from November to April.

Can adults get RSV?

Yes, older adults, individuals with asthma, congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and people with immunodeficiency, including those who have received transplanted organs, have leukemia or HIV/AIDS, are at risk for contracting RSV. Also, adults and healthy children may develop RSV, but for these individuals, RSV infection is similar to the common cold.

How do children get RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus enters the body through the 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. 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.

Children who attend child care centers or who have siblings who attend school are at a higher risk of exposure. Susceptibility is also greater during the peak RSV season, typically, November to April.