Respiratory syncytial virus is one of the most commonly contracted viruses. The majority of children will have been infected with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, by the time they are toddlers.

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What Is RSV?

So, what is RSV, and is RSV contagious? RSV is a common virus that typically causes cold-like symptoms though it can cause more important infections involving the lungs as well. Most children have had it by the time they are 2 years old and recover from the illness within a week or two. Of note, prior infection does not prevent you from getting infected again, though subsequent episodes tend to be milder. However, for younger children or infants, or for children and adults with weakened immune systems, RSV can be very dangerous.

People with the virus experience many of the same symptoms as those of the common cold, such as runny nose, congestion, cough, and fever, according to the American Lung Association. Sometimes, the symptoms can progress and a person can experience difficulty breathing, lethargy, and apnea. These symptoms indicate that RSV has developed into RSV bronchiolitis, a lung infection that can be caused by the virus. Premature infants are especially susceptible to this.

Is RSV Contagious?

The National Institutes of Health warns that RSV is very contagious and spreads quickly in crowded households or daycare centers. Outbreaks of RSV typically start in the Fall when cold and flu season begins and continues until sometime in the Spring.

The respiratory syncytial virus can live on hard surfaces, like desktops, crib rails, and doorknobs, for many hours. It can easily spread through a sneeze or cough. If a person touches a hard surface where the virus is present, such as a doorknob or a light switch, and then touches their own mouth or nose, they can contract the virus. A person can also contract it simply by shaking an infected person’s hand.

People infected with RSV are usually contagious for about three to eight days, but some people with weakened immune systems can continue to spread the virus for longer and have symptoms for up to four weeks, notes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

RSV is especially dangerous for those at higher risk, including:

  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Premature infants
  • People with heart or lung disease

RSV may evolve into a more serious condition for these people. In fact, RSV in children younger than 5 years old accounts for more than 2 million doctor and emergency room visits every year. Anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of those cases will require hospitalization, and the majority of these patients will be younger than 6 months old, according to the American Lung Association.

Prevention

The best way to prevent the spread of respiratory syncytial virus is by covering coughs and sneezes properly, with a tissue or a shirt sleeve, not with your hands, and teaching children to do so, also. Sneezing into your hands almost ensures that the virus will spread to another surface or person. It is also important to wash your hands frequently with soap and water and avoid close contact, like hand-shaking, hugs, and kisses. It’s also crucial to clean and sanitize hard surfaces frequently.

The CDC recommends using a drug called palivizumab in some infants and children (usually young infants with a history of prematurity or those with heart disease, lung disease or abnormal immune systems) to help prevent RSV infection and to try to keep it from developing into a more severe illness. . However, there is no vaccination for the virus, and the drug does not cure patients who already have RSV. It simply prevents the infection or keeps the illness from progressing.

To learn more about how you can prevent or treat RSV, as well as to learn about the symptoms, contact UPMC.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh ranks No. 8 on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. All 10 of our specialties rank nationally. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.