Black baby getting examined by a doctor

RSV: What you need to know

By Loren M. Blinde, PhD Oct 20, 2022 • 4 min


What is RSV?

Although you may not have heard its name before, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a fairly common respiratory virus. For most people, RSV causes mild cold-like symptoms, including a runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing. Most people recover from an RSV infection on their own within a week or two, but RSV can sometimes be more serious, especially for adults age 65 and older and babies 6 months old or younger.

How is RSV different from other respiratory viruses?

Although RSV and other upper respiratory infections can share similar symptoms, RSV more commonly causes more serious infections in the lungs of individuals at risk. These can include bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs). In fact, RSV is the No. 1 cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies less than 1 year old.

Symptoms of RSV usually don’t all happen at once; they tend to come on in stages and can get worse over time. Some young children and older adults who have more serious cases of RSV may have trouble breathing and/or may get dehydrated. They may need to spend a few days in the hospital while they recover. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of a more serious infection and when to contact your healthcare provider.

What to watch for in babies and young children

Two warning signs of worsening RSV are trouble with breathing and dehydration. Watch for symptoms that get worse over time. Here are some signs that a baby or young child is having trouble getting enough oxygen:

  • Fast breathing
  • Nostril flaring
  • Head bobbing or grunting while breathing
  • Belly breathing
  • Chest caving in with each breath
  • Bluish or grayish tinge to skin or lips
  • Wheezing

If a baby or young child has fewer than one wet diaper in an eight-hour period, it may be a sign of dehydration. 

When to call your healthcare provider

If you see any of the above warning signs in your child, contact your child’s healthcare provider right away. For adults who may have RSV, contact your healthcare provider if you’re having trouble breathing, have symptoms of dehydration or feel like your symptoms are getting worse. 

Who is at risk of severe RSV

  • Adults age 65 and older
  • Adults who have chronic heart or lung diseases
  • Adults who have weakened immune systems
  • Babies born premature or with low birth weight
  • Very young infants (6 months and younger)
  • Children under 2 years old who have chronic lung disease
  • Children who have certain heart defects (congenital heart disease)
  • Children who have weakened immune systems
  • Children who have neuromuscular disorders

Published October 2022.

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