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Respiratory syncytial virus

Respiratory syncytial virus – Definition

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common cause of many types of infections of the respiratory system (lungs and breathing passages), including:

  • Common cold
  • Bronchitis
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Croup

Although these infections can happen at any age, they occur most commonly and are usually most severe in infants, young children, and the elderly. In severe cases, RSV infections can cause death.

Respiratory System Anatomy of an Infant

Respiratory syncytial virus – Causes

RSV is spread through infected fluids of the mouth and nose. The virus most often enters the body from touching the mouth, nose, or eyes. It can also be spread by inhaling droplets from a sneeze or cough.

RSV is a very contagious virus. It can survive on surfaces and objects for hours and is easily passed from person to person. Virus shedding (contagious) usually lasts for 3-8 days, but may last for up to four weeks.

Respiratory syncytial virus – Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Risk factors include:

  • Age: infants and young children, especially those under 2 years old
  • Exposure to a person infected with the virus or an object contaminated with the virus
  • Premature birth of an infant
  • Problems with the heart, lungs, or immune system
  • Present or recent use of chemotherapy
  • Having had an organ or bone marrow transplant
  • Problems associated with muscle weakness

Respiratory syncytial virus – Symptoms

The symptoms of RSV infection vary and usually differ with age and previous exposure to RSV. Very young children, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases are more likely to have severe symptoms.

In children younger than age three, RSV can cause illness such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Symptoms may include:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • High fever
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Very fast rate of breathing
  • Bluish color of the lips or fingernails
  • Lethargy or irritability
  • Lack of appetite
  • Discharge from the eyes

In children older than age three and in healthy adults, RSV typically causes an upper respiratory infection or cold. Symptoms commonly include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Mild cough
  • Headache
  • Low-grade fever
  • Discharge from the eyes

Respiratory syncytial virus – Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about you or your child’s symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. A variety of tests are available to diagnose RSV. Lab tests called antigen detection assays are commonly done using secretions from the nose.

Respiratory syncytial virus – Treatment

In most cases, antibiotics are not needed as the infection is caused by a virus and not a bacteria.

Mild Infections

Mild infections, such as colds, do not need special treatment. The goal is to ease symptoms so that you or your child feels more comfortable while the body fights the virus. For symptom relief, try the following:

  • Drink plenty of liquids, especially water and fruit juice, to help keep nasal fluid thin and easy to clear.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to humidify the air. This may help reduce coughing and soothe irritated breathing passages.
  • Use saline (salt water) nose drops to loosen mucus in the nose.
  • Use non-aspirin fever medicine, such as acetaminophen, as needed to reduce fever.

Severe Infections

People of all ages can develop severe infections from RSV, but it is most common in the very young. Severe infections include pneumonia and bronchiolitis. These may require treatment in a hospital. This treatment is aimed at opening up breathing passages, and may include:

  • Humidified air
  • Supplemental oxygen
  • Treatments to improve breathing
  • In certain cases, mechanical ventilation (breathing machine)

If you or your child are diagnosed with RSV, follow your doctor’s instructions.

Respiratory syncytial virus – Prevention

Step to prevent RSV include:

  • Practice healthy habits. These include:
    • Wash your hands often, especially after touching someone who may have a cold or other RSV infection.
    • Avoid touching your face or rubbing your eyes.
    • Do not share items such as cups, glasses, silverware, or towels with people who may have a cold or other RSV infection.
    • Avoid smoke exposure.
  • If your baby has a high-risk of serious illness from RSV (eg, the baby is premature or has severe lung or heart problems), the doctor may recommend a medicine to help prevent infection. The medicine is given by injection monthly through the fall and winter in children under two years old. Talk with your child’s doctor to see if this medicine would benefit your baby.

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