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

So, what is RSV, and is RSV contagious?

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What Is RSV?

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.

Prior infection does not prevent you from getting infected again, though subsequent episodes tend to be milder. But for very young 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, according to the American Lung Association. Those include:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Fever

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. This is 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 toys, for many hours. It can easily spread through a sneeze or cough. If a person touches a hard surface where the virus is present and then touches their own mouth or nose, they can contract the virus. Sharing objects like toys with an infected child can lead to transmission. 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, according to the 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 Department visits every year. Anywhere from 5% to 20% of those cases will require hospitalization. The majority of these patients will be younger than 6 months old, according to the American Lung Association.

How to Prevent RSV

The best way to prevent the spread of respiratory syncytial virus is by covering coughs and sneezes properly. Use a tissue or a shirt sleeve, not your hands, and teach 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 or alcoholic hand gel and avoid close contact, like handshaking, hugs, and kisses.

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). This may help prevent RSV infection and/or keep it from developing into a more severe illness. 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.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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 is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.