What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that causes infection in the lungs and airways. It is one of the most common causes of respiratory (breathing) infections in children, including the common cold. Infections with RSV usually occur towards the end of autumn and during the winter months.
RSV can affect people of all ages, and most people have had RSV by the time they are 2 years old. You can get RSV again and again. Recovery from RSV gives some immunity (protection) against getting it again, but this immunity is not long-lasting.
What are the symptoms of RSV?
In most people, RSV causes a mild respiratory illness. You usually first notice symptoms around 5 days after being exposed to the virus. You may feel increasingly unwell over the first 3 to 4 days of the illness and then start to improve.
Symptoms may include:
RSV symptoms in young babies
Young children may develop wheezing and difficulty breathing, especially if they have asthma.
Your baby may have difficulty feeding and may be unsettled. They may need to go to hospital if they have breathing or feeding difficulties.
What causes RSV?
RSV is a virus that causes lung and airway infections. Babies and children usually catch RSV from people around them who also have the virus.
You are usually infectious (can pass on the virus) for up to 8 days from when your symptoms begin. RSV is very contagious. It can live on surfaces for several hours or your unwashed hands for 30 to 60 minutes.
If you have RSV, you can spread it by coughing, sneezing or sharing cups. It can be difficult to stop the spread of RSV, but practising handwashing and good hygiene can help to avoid passing the virus onto others.
How is RSV diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose the common cold, pneumonia and bronchiolitis (often caused by RSV) by talking to you and examining your child. Your doctor can confirm that your child's illness is caused by RSV by doing a PCR test (a swab of your child's nose or throat).
How is RSV treated in babies?
You can usually manage mild cases of RSV at home. Often, you won't need to give your baby medicine, and all they will need is rest.
There are some things you can do at home to make sure your baby stays hydrated and comfortable. It may be easier for your baby to drink small amounts often, so offer your baby the bottle or the breast at frequent intervals.
If your baby has a fever, treat your baby with paracetamol or ibuprofen (in doses recommended on the bottle). Young babies, premature babies, babies with pre-existing heart and lung conditions and babies with severe bronchiolitis may need to go to hospital for help with breathing or feeding.
If your baby is younger than 3 months old and has a fever above 38°C, take them to the nearest hospital emergency department immediately, or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
How is RSV treated in young children?
Treating young children with RSV is similar to treating babies with RSV. It is important to offer your child small amounts of fluid often.
You can bring down your child's fever with paracetamol or ibuprofen. If your child attends day care, it is important not to send them back until they are feeling well. If your child has breathing or feeding difficulties, they may need to go to hospital.
When should I see my doctor?
You should take your child to see a doctor if:
- they have a high fever
- they are having difficulty feeding or are refusing to feed
- your child's cough becomes worse
- you are concerned about your child's breathing
If your child is having difficulty breathing, is turning blue, is grunting or is lethargic, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
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Can RSV be prevented?
There is currently no vaccine available for RSV. However, there a medicine called palivizumab that provides passive immunity to RSV. Palivizumab works by transferring readymade antibodies (that fight infection) to the baby, providing some level of protection and immunity against RSV. The medicine is available in Australia to babies who are at particularly high risk of becoming very unwell with RSV.
High-risk babies include those with pre-existing heart or lung problems, premature babies or those who are immunocompromised (with immune systems that don't function properly). This medicine can reduce you baby's risk of needing hospitalisation and intensive care. The medicine is usually given every 4 weeks from May to September. It is given as an injection.
Other ways to prevent RSV include maintaining good hygiene and teaching older children about personal hygiene. Good hygiene measures include:
- hand washing
- covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing
- regularly cleaning surfaces that may be contaminated
- avoiding sharing cups and eating utensils
- staying at home if you feel unwell
Complications of RSV in babies and children
Babies and children with RSV can have various complications including bronchiolitis, pneumonia and ear infections. If your child develops these complications, your doctor may recommend you manage their health at home with close follow-up. Your doctor may suggest that they go to hospital if they need help with breathing and feeding.
Resources and support
For more information about RSV and its symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, see the following websites:
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Last reviewed: July 2023