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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): What You Need to Know

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): What You Need to Know

This article is for people who are at risk for getting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or anyone who's interested in learning more about RSV. The goal of this activity is to help people learn about RSV and what to do if they think they may have it.

You will learn about:

  • What RSV is and how it can spread

  • Who's at a higher risk of severe illness from RSV

  • RSV symptoms

  • Protecting yourself and others from RSV

  • Questions to ask your doctor

Test Your Knowledge

What Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that can cause an infection in your respiratory system (nose, throat, sinuses, airways, and lungs).

Anyone at any age can get RSV -- it is so common that most kids will have gotten it before they turn 2. You can also be infected with RSV more than once.

Most people who get RSV will have mild, cold-like symptoms and get better on their own in 1 to 2 weeks. But for some, RSV can be serious and even life-threatening.

How RSV Spreads

RSV can spread from person to person through the air when someone who's infected coughs or sneezes. The virus can also live for hours on objects such as countertops, toys, and phones. This means that RSV can spread through direct contact by touching an object then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.

You're most likely to spread RSV during the first week or so after being infected. But infants and people with weakened immune systems can continue to spread RSV for up to 4 weeks, even after symptoms go away.

Who's at a Higher Risk for Severe Illness?

While most people who get RSV will have mild symptoms, RSV can be serious and even life-threatening for some.

People at a higher risk for severe illness from RSV include:

  • People who have a heart or lung condition

  • People who have a weakened immune system from taking certain medicines or having a health condition such as cancer

  • Babies born prematurely

  • Babies 12 months old and younger

  • Children who have certain health conditions and have trouble swallowing or getting rid of mucus

  • Older adults, especially those 65 and older

RSV Symptoms

RSV symptoms usually show up 4 to 6 days after you're exposed to and infected with the virus. In healthy adults and older children, RSV symptoms are usually mild and may happen in stages, not appearing all at once. Some people may not even have symptoms.

When symptoms do appear, they can include:

  • Dry cough, sneezing

  • Stuffy or runny nose

  • Sore throat

  • Lowered appetite

  • Headache

  • Fever (in some people)

  • Wheezing when you breathe

RSV Symptoms (cont)

Unlike adults who may not have any symptoms from RSV, babies almost always have some type of symptoms. Infants younger than 6 months may only have symptoms such as:

  • Being irritable or less active

  • Having less of an appetite

  • Problems breathing or pausing during breathing (apnea)

Having RSV may not seem too bad at first, but it can get worse after a person is sick for a few days. Be sure to call a doctor or get medical attention if you or your child has trouble breathing or a high fever, isn't drinking enough fluids, or has any symptoms that are getting worse. If RSV gets bad enough, it may require a stay in the hospital.

RSV Can Lead to Complications

For some people, RSV can lead to complications (additional problems) that may be serious and even life-threatening.

Complications can include:

  • Bronchiolitis, an inflammation (swelling) of the small airways in your lungs

  • Pneumonia, a lung infection

  • Middle ear infections, especially in babies and young children

  • Worsening of certain heart and lung conditions

RSV, COVID-19, or the Flu?

RSV can look like other respiratory infections -- such as COVID-19 or the flu -- so it can be hard to tell them apart.

With COVID-19, children often have no symptoms or mild ones, such as fever, stuffy or runny nose, and cough. But adults may have more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fatigue (tiredness). COVID-19 may also cause a loss of taste or smell.

With the flu, the big difference from RSV is how symptoms come on. The flu usually starts quickly with a high fever and body aches. RSV starts out like a cold that can lead to coughing and wheezing. People who have RSV infection may or may not have a fever.

You can also have more than one of these illnesses at the same time. If you or your child has symptoms, contact your doctor.

Protecting Yourself and Others

RSV season usually happens during the fall, winter, and spring. If you're at a higher risk for severe illness, or around someone who is, ways you can help prevent from spreading RSV and protect yourself and others include:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth

  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze

  • Keep countertops, doorknobs, handles, toys, phones, and other frequently touched objects clean

  • Avoid close contact, such as kissing and sharing cups or eating utensils

  • Stay home if you're sick

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Questions you can ask your doctor about RSV can include:

  • Am I at a higher risk for severe illness from RSV?

  • What symptoms should I look for?

  • How can I prevent the spread of RSV and protect myself and others?

  • What should I do if a member of my family or I get sick?  

  • Where can I find more information and resources?

Test Your Knowledge

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You have successfully completed the program: Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): What You Need to Know

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection

RSV Symptoms and Care

RSV Transmission

RSV Prevention

People at a High Risk for Severe RSV Infection

Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Karen Badal, MD, MPH

Senior Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Karen Badal, MD, MPH, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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