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Infectious Disease Glossary Health Tips Infection Protection

Recognizing RSV: It’s More Than The Common Cold

2 years ago

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Posted on Sep 07, 2021, 2 p.m.

There is a common virus that has been on the rise this year, it is called respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. This virus is usually more common in the fall, winter, and spring but infections have surged over the summer this year.

According to NIH, almost everyone catches RSV before the age of 2. It’s one of the most common causes of illness in children. But unlike many other viruses that infect the lungs, you can catch RSV over and over again.

“RSV has a number of ways of evading the immune system,” says Dr. Barney Graham, a physician who studies viruses at NIH. “So people are re-infected with RSV on average every three to 10 years.”

RSV infects the cells that line your lungs and breathing passages. Many symptoms mimic the common cold, like a runny nose, loss of appetite, and coughing or wheezing.

Symptoms usually stay mild in older children and adults. But some people are at risk of more serious disease. These include premature infants, young children with congenital heart or chronic lung disease, older adults (especially those with underlying heart or lung disease), and people with a weakened/compromised immune system.

Some people develop pneumonia or inflammation in the lungs from RSV. Watch for symptoms that get worse over time or trouble breathing or drinking fluids. People with these symptoms should see a health care provider right away. A blood test can show if you have RSV or another virus with similar symptoms.

Those infected generally show symptoms within 4-6 days of infection which typically include: runny nose, decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, and wheezing. Symptoms usually appear in stages not all at once and may also include irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties. 

For mild cases, over-the-counter fever or pain relievers may help reduce symptoms. But people with more serious cases may need treatment in a hospital. Most RSV infections tend to go away on their own within a week or two. 

Currently, there is no specific treatment. It is important to contact your healthcare professional in cases with difficulty breathing, not drinking enough liquids, or worsening symptoms. 

Take steps to relieve symptoms

  • Manage fever and pain with over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. (Never give aspirin to children.)
  • Drink enough fluids. It is important for people with RSV infection to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration (loss of body fluids).
  • Talk to your healthcare provider before giving your child nonprescription cold medicines. Some medicines contain ingredients that are not good for children.


RSV spreads easily between people. It can travel in droplets from a cough or sneeze. It can also stay on surfaces like doorknobs and tables. That means you can catch it if you touch an infected surface and then touch your face.

Most people who get mild RSV feel better in a week or two. But people can still spread it even after they stop showing symptoms. RSV can also cause more severe infections like bronchiolitis and pneumonia, according to the CDC. 

NIH researchers have unsuccessfully been working for decades to develop RSV vaccines. Recently, scientists have been able to take detailed pictures of proteins on the virus’s outer surface. This allowed them to create a vaccine that potentially may be able to better target the virus.

In early research, “this vaccine has turned out to be radically better than any tried before,” Graham says. Researchers hope that a vaccine might soon be available for at-risk groups. Such a shot may be able to protect newborns by vaccinating their mothers before birth, he adds.

An RSV vaccine could potentially do much more than preventing infection, says Graham. Kids who get severe RSV as infants have a higher risk of other lung problems, like asthma. So, a vaccine might help to prevent some cases of future lung issues as well.

Those infected with RSV are typically contagious for 3-8 days, however, some such as those with a weakened immune system can continue to spread for up to 4 weeks, according to the CDC. 

RSV can survive for hours on hard surfaces like tables and crib railings, and it typically lives on soft surfaces like tissues and hands for shorter amounts of time. People can get an infection at any age as well as become reinfected, but infections later in life are generally less severe. 

It’s important to note that good hygiene and avoiding being around sick people still remain to be the best ways to avoid getting RSV and other viruses. 

Tips To Help Protect Against Germs

  • Avoid close contact with people who have cold-like symptoms.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use alcohol-based hand gel if you’re unable to wash them. Be sure it contains at least 60% alcohol, and follow up with soap and water as soon as possible.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched, like doorknobs, toys, handhold railings, elevator buttons, toilet handles, crosswalk buttons, countertops, fridge handles, remote controls, light switches, computers, and mobile devices.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Stay home when you’re sick.

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