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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a respiratory illness caused by a virus.
Who gets RSV infection?
Anyone can be infected, but RSV most often causes serious illness in infants and very young children. The virus can also cause serious illness in elderly people and those with a weakened immune system.
When do RSV infections occur?
RSV infections typically occur during the Fall and Winter.
How is RSV spread?
RSV is spread through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of infected people when they cough and sneeze. RSV can also spread through dry respiratory secretions on bedclothes and similar items.
What are the symptoms of RSV infection?
Typical symptoms resemble the common cold. However, RSV infection can also result in pneumonia, especially in the very young, the very old or those who have weakened immune systems. However, mild or inapparent illness may occur. Symptoms may persist for a few days to a number of weeks.
How soon after infection do symptoms appear?
Symptoms generally begin 4 to 6 days after exposure. Symptoms generally develop slowly over a period of several days. The contagious period is usually 10 days after symptoms begin, but occasionally is longer.
How is RSV infection diagnosed?
RSV is usually diagnosed based on the appearance of typical symptoms. The use of specific laboratory tests is often limited to cases of severe illness and to special outbreak investigations.
What is the treatment for RSV infection?
A medication called ribavirin is effective against RSV infection if begun in the first few days after symptoms appear. Because RSV infection often resolves on its own, treatment of mild symptoms is not necessary for most people. Antibiotics are not effective treatments for viral illnesses such as RSV infection (although in certain patients, antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial infections which have complicated the RSV infection in that patient).
Does past infection with RSV make a person immune?
Immunity after RSV infection does occur, but is not life-long. Repeat infections are known to occur, although they may be milder. The duration is unknown.
What can be done to prevent the spread of RSV?
At this time, there are no licensed vaccines for the prevention of RSV infection. When RSV infections are noted in a facility such as a hospital or nursing home, contact isolation (to minimize person-to-person spread) and handwashing by health care workers have been shown to limit spread of the virus. As with any respiratory illness, all people should cover their face when coughing and sneezing.

Last Updated: October 2000