Surviving Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Surviving Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

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 and their care partners talk to and work with their doctor and healthcare team about RSV.

You will learn about:

  • RSV and its symptoms and complications (additional problems)

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

  • How RSV spreads and ways to help protect yourself and others

  • Testing for RSV

  • Questions to ask your doctor and healthcare team 

Test Your Knowledge

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that can cause an infection in your nose, throat, sinuses, airways, and lungs. RSV is so common that most kids will have gotten it before they turn 2. But anyone can get RSV at any age, and you can also be infected more than once.

RSV symptoms usually appear 4 to 6 days after you're infected. Most people will have mild, cold-like symptoms and recover on their own in 1 to 2 weeks. But getting RSV can be serious and even life-threatening for some.

Are You at a Higher Risk for Severe Illness?

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 from certain health conditions

  • Older adults, especially those 65 and older

  • Babies born prematurely

  • Babies 12 months old and younger

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

RSV Symptoms

Older children and healthy adults often have mild RSV symptoms that can happen in stages. But some people may not have any symptoms at all.

When symptoms do happen, they can include:

  • Dry cough 

  • Sneezing

  • Stuffy or runny nose

  • Wheezing

  • Sore throat

  • Decreased appetite

  • Headache

  • Fever (for some people)  

Babies almost always have some type of symptoms from RSV. Infants younger than 6 months may only be irritable or less active, or have less of an appetite or breathing problems.

RSV may not seem bad at first, but it can get worse after a few days. So be sure to call a doctor or get medical attention if someone isn't drinking enough fluids or has trouble breathing, a high fever, or symptoms that are getting worse.

RSV Can Lead to Serious Complications

RSV can lead to serious complications that may even be life-threatening for some adults and children.

Complications that may happen with RSV can include:

  • Hospitalization (being sick enough to need to be in the hospital)

  • Bronchiolitis, inflammation or swelling of the small airways in your lungs

  • Pneumonia (a lung infection)

  • Worsening of certain heart and lung conditions, such as more severe asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms

  • Congestive heart failure (CHF) where your heart can't pump enough blood

  • Middle ear infections, especially in babies and young children

Dr Angela R. Branche, an infectious disease expert, talks about what everyone should know about RSV.

How RSV Can Spread

RSV spreads from person to person through the air. So someone who's infected and is coughing or sneezing is a common way it can spread.

But the virus can also live for hours on objects and surfaces, such as countertops, toys, phones, and doorknobs. So RSV can also spread through direct contact when you touch something that has the virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.

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

Protecting Yourself and Others

RSV season usually happens during the fall, winter, and spring months. Ways you can help protect yourself and others and help prevent RSV from spreading include:

  • Washing your hands well and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth

  • Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throwing away any used tissues. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands

  • Keeping surfaces and frequently touched objects clean

  • Avoiding close contact, such as kissing and sharing cups or eating utensils, with people who are sick

  • Staying home if you're sick

Testing for RSV

If you or your child have any RSV symptoms -- especially when there's a higher risk for severe illness -- contact your doctor or healthcare team member.

To check for RSV and other infections, your doctor may ask about your medical history, do a physical exam where they check your lungs, and do tests such as:

  • Blood and urine tests to check your white blood cell counts as a sign of infection

  • Chest X-ray to check for pneumonia or inflammation in your lungs

  • Swab the inside of your mouth or nose or do blood tests to check for viruses and bacteria

  • Pulse oximetry to check the oxygen levels in your blood

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Questions you can ask your doctor or healthcare team member about RSV can include:

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

  • Are there any symptoms I should look for?

  • How can I help 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 Surviving Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

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

Patient Handout

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection

RSV Symptoms and Care

RSV Transmission

RSV Prevention

People at a High Risk for Severe RSV Infection

RSV in Older Adults and Adults With Chronic Medical Conditions

Authors and Disclosures


Angela R. Branche, MD

Associate Professor of Medicine
University of Rochester School of Medicine
Rochester, New York
Angela R. Branche, MD, has the following relevant financial relationships:
Consultant or advisor for: GlaxoSmithKline; Janssen.
Research funding from: Cyanvac; Janssen; Merck; Pfizer.

Clinician Reviewer

Karen Badal, MD, MPH

Senior Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.
Karen Badal, MD, MPH, has no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC.
Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has no relevant financial relationships.


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