Spring Virus: Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

During allergy season, there is a common viral infection to watch out for: respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Anyone can get the infection but it’s more common in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that every year, 2.1 million children younger than 5 years old visit the doctor for an RSV infection; in those older than 65 years, about 177,000 are hospitalized for RSV infections. Because this infection is so common, it’s important to become familiar with prevention and treatment strategies.

Respiratory syncytial virus spreads from one person to another through contact of bodily fluids, like saliva. To prevent getting or spreading RSV, it’s important to wash your hands often with soap and water, disinfect areas that are regularly used (like counter tops and doorknobs), cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing and coughing, and stay home if you are sick to avoid spreading the infection. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands. According to the CDC, people with RSV can spread the virus for 3 to 8 days; infants and those with weakened immune systems can spread the virus for up to 4 weeks. Being in a crowded place can increase the chances of spreading the RSV infection.

Many mistake RSV infections for the common cold or allergies because the symptoms are similar: runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, tiredness and wheezing. Not everyone will experience all of these symptoms and the symptoms may or may not appear at the same time. Development of symptoms usually occurs within 4 to 6 days of becoming infected and should resolve in about 1 to 2 weeks. The symptoms associated with an RSV infection are usually mild but can become severe, leading to other infections that require immediate medical treatment. Such infections include bronchiolitis, a condition where certain parts of the lungs become inflamed, or pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.

Currently, there are no vaccines to prevent RSV and there are no specific treatments. Additionally, those who have been infected before can become infected again. If you develop an RSV infection, the best thing to do is rest and keep hydrated. Alleviating some of the symptoms, such as pain or fever, can be achieved by using over-the-counter treatments like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. However, before using any medication, make sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider. Most people with an RSV infection do not require hospitalization but for those who are considered to be high risk, like the elderly and children younger than 6 months of age, it may become necessary, especially if they become dehydrated or have difficulty breathing.