Authored by Revere Health

RSV: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments and Prevention

April 18, 2017 | Adult and Adolescent Medicine

Certain conditions are extremely common in children, even generally healthy children, and one of these is respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. RSV is a virus that causes infection in the lungs and respiratory tract, and it often feels like the common cold for many older children or adults.

Infants and younger children who get RSV may be at risk of other complications—the virus is so common that the majority of children have already been infected by the time they’re two years old.

There are things you can do to help prevent RSV and most cases only require simple treatment methods.

Symptoms and Complications

For most cases of RSV, symptoms show up within four to six days. In older children and adults, symptoms are similar to a basic cold—cough and sore throat, fever, runny nose and perhaps a mild headache.

The larger concern with more severe cases of RSV include infections and other conditions like pneumonia. These are especially risky for infants, who are affected most severely by RSV. These symptoms include:

  • Extreme cough or wheezing
    Trouble breathing, often seen through heavy breathing
  • Fever
  • Blue skin coloration, caused by lack of oxygen

If any of these symptoms are present in infants, or if they’re more irritable or lethargic than usual, seek medical care right away. Complications can arise quickly, including:

  • Pneumonia or bronchiolitis: If the virus moves to the lower respiratory tract, this can cause inflammation of the lungs or airways. These conditions are most serious in young children or people with heart or lung diseases.
  • Asthma: Severe RSV may impact your chances of developing asthma.
  • Infections: People who have had RSV might be at a higher risk of future infections.
  • Middle ear infection: Ear infections occur most often in infants and young children.
  • Hospitalization: You may need to visit a hospital if complications are serious enough to cause trouble breathing and a decreased level of bodily fluid.


Causes and Risk Factors

The RSV virus is very transferable—it can live for hours on many different objects, and it passes into the body through any opening like the nose, mouth or eyes. It can spread through direct contact or through actions like coughing and sneezing. Most children will already have been infected by age 2, and risk is higher during the winter season.

Factors that increase the risk of RSV include:

  • Age: Infants under 6 months old are at the highest risk; older adults are also at a higher risk.
  • Birth conditions: Children born prematurely, or who have certain underlying conditions, are at a higher risk.
  • Immune system: A weakened immune system, especially in children, can increase risk.
  • Child care: Kids who attend child care facilities, with more chances for the virus to spread, have a higher chance of contracting RSV.



After using one of a few tests to determine if symptoms truly indicate RSV, your doctor will give you treatment recommendations. In many cases, these are home remedies meant to reduce symptoms and increase comfort—your doctor may prescribe a painkiller, or an antibiotic for infection. Keep yourself or your child as comfortable as you can, and keep fluid levels high.

In some cases—when there is a need for IV or oxygen, or if a child is having trouble breathing—hospital care is needed.



Because there’s no vaccine for RSV, preventing it comes down standard precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

  • Exposure: Limiting the chances that you or your child come into contact with people who may have the infection lowers your risk.
  • Cleanliness: Any areas you or your child frequently touch should be cleaned regularly to clear germs.
  • Smoking: Infants who are exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of RSV, and their symptoms could be worse than normal.
  • Hand-washing: Washing hands as often as possible is great, especially before touching your child or anyone else.
  • Sharing: Limit sharing things like drinking glasses or straws especially while someone is sick.

If you or your child has respiratory syncytial virus, or if your infant is showing severe symptoms, speak to your doctor right away.

As a physician, I love helping people through stressful times when they may be sick or hurt. I want to be the kind of doctor that I would want for my own family. When a doctor takes the time to help their patients understand what is happening and what the plan is, a patient’s anxiety can be greatly reduced. The patient should receive all the information they need to be an equal partner in decision-making and feel empowered about caring for their body. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


“Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).” The Mayo Clinic.


The Live Better Team

Telehealth is not appropriate for every medical concern, so it’s important to ask your provider whether a virtual visit is suitable for your needs.

Learn more about Telehealth

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.