Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a respiratory virus that infects the nose, throat, lungs, and breathing passages. In the US, RSV causes infections every year, along with other respiratory viruses. Healthy people usually experience mild, cold-like symptoms and recover in 1-2 weeks. But RSV can be serious, especially for infants, patients who are immunocompromised, and older adults.
RSV can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and droplets get in the eyes, nose, or mouth of a healthy person. Additionally, touching a contaminated surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touching your face can expose you to the virus. RSV can also spread through direct contact with the virus, like kissing the face of a child with RSV.
RSV can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables and crib rails. It typically lives on soft surfaces such as tissues and hands for shorter amounts of time. Children are often exposed to RSV outside the home, such as in school or daycare centers. They can then transmit the virus to other members of the family.
RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia in children <1 year of age in the US. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their 2nd birthday. On average each year in the US, RSV leads to approximately 2.1 million outpatient visits, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 100-500 deaths among children younger than age 5 years.
RSV is also increasingly recognized as a significant cause of respiratory illness in older adults and is estimated to cause 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths in adults 65 and older in the US every year.
People of all ages can get RSV infection but those at highest risk for severe disease include:
- premature infants
- young children with congenital heart or chronic lung disease
- young children with weakened immune systems due to a medical condition or medical treatment
- adults with compromised immune systems
- older adults, especially those with underlying heart or lung disease.
Symptoms of RSV infection usually include: runny nose, decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, and wheezing. The symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young infants, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties. People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within 4 to 6 days after getting infected. Healthy adults infected with RSV may have few symptoms but can still spread virus to others.
People infected with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days. However, some infants, and people with weakened immune systems, can continue to spread the virus even after they stop showing symptoms, for as long as 4 weeks.
To help prevent the spread of RSV, those with cold-like symptoms should:
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Avoid close contact, such as kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups and eating utensils, with others
- Avoid touching the face with unwashed hands
In addition, cleaning frequently touched surfaces (such as doorknobs) may help stop the spread of RSV.
Researchers are working to develop RSV vaccines, but none are available yet.
A drug called palivizumab (pah-lih-VIH-zu-mahb) is available to prevent severe RSV illness in certain infants and children who are at high risk for severe disease (infants born prematurely or with congenital heart disease or chronic lung disease.) The drug can help prevent serious RSV disease, but it cannot help cure or treat children already suffering from serious RSV disease, and it cannot prevent infection with RSV.
Updated April 2021
Shareable infographic about the prevalence of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in adults age 65 years and older …