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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Facts

After 22 years as an RN, I now write about medical issues and new medical advances. Diet, exercise, treatment, and lifestyle are important.

X-ray of a child with RSV bronchiolitis showing the typical bilateral perihilar fullness

X-ray of a child with RSV bronchiolitis showing the typical bilateral perihilar fullness

Facts About Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

The Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common virus that affects babies, children and adults, particularly those that are immune suppressed. RSV is a common virus whose symptoms are cold-like, but it can cause severe infections in some people.

In the US the peak season for RSV is from fall through spring. In India the season is the rainy season through the winter months. In Europe RSV is the most common pathogen causing severe lower respiratory tract infections among infants and young children. It tends to occur from December through April also. Worldwide there are 66,000 to 199,000 deaths from RSV. Typical complications are pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

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Facts About Diagnosis

RSV is spread from one person to another with close contact with an infected individual. Secretions from coughing or sneezing, plus touching infected objects. It typically takes between 2 and 8 days to develop the infection after exposure. Then, the infection lasts from 3-7 days, and this is when the infection is most contagious.

Most children have RSV by age two, but this disease can be more severe in babies younger than twelve months especially in premature babies. In adults RSV typically presents like a common cold, except in those who are immuno-suppressed. Adults suffering from asthma, congestive heart failure or COPD are also at higher risk for more severe symptoms.

It is time to see a doctor when there is a high fever, wheezing, any difficulty breathing or if the skin is a blue color, particularly the lips or nail beds. The doctor will listen to the lungs, test the oxygen level and they may get lab work to rule out a bacterial infection. Antibiotics are not prescribed.

RSV in Adults: Are You at Risk?

Symptoms

Symptoms tend to appear about four to six days after exposure to the virus. The common first symptoms include:

  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Low-grade fever
  • Dry cough
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

A RSV infection can spread into the lower respiratory tract causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation in the small airway passages that enter the lungs. These symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing or a very rapid breathing
  • Cough
  • Bluish color of the skin due to lack of adequate oxygen (cyanosis)

In infants the symptoms include:

  • Short, shallow and rapid breathing
  • Struggling to breathe — chest muscles and skin pull inward with each breath
  • Cough
  • Poor feeding
  • Unusual tiredness (lethargy)
  • Irritability
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Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for this viral disease. RSV and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are very similar types of respiratory viruses, so a COVID test would be required to determine which virus someone has.

Treatment consists of drinking plenty of liquids. Fever should be treated with acetaminophen. Talk with your child’s doctor before giving them OTC cold medicines. Currently Ribavirin is the only antiviral medication available to treat RSV in children.

In elderly adults RSV is now considered a significant problem and while research is ongoing treatment tends to be supportive.

Most children and adults recover in one to two weeks without treatment, although some might have repeated wheezing.

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Preventative Vaccine for Babies

Synagis (palivizumab) is an injection that may help prevent children under age two from getting RSV. This vaccine may be particularly helpful for high-risk children that include:

  • Born prematurely
  • Certain types of chronic lung disease
  • Some types of heart defects
  • Have a weakened immune system

Typically, the first injection is given at the beginning of the RSV season. Then, monthly injections are given during this season. This injection is not effective for a child that already has RSV.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Children

Prevention

Prevention begins by avoiding close contact with any infected person. Frequent hand washing for at least twenty seconds is very important in preventing any disease. Further prevention includes:

  • Avoid sharing cups, bottles or toys that may be contaminated. The RSV virus can live on a surface for several hours.
  • Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, then wash your hands.
  • If you are prone to sickness or have a weakened immune system, avoid large crowds.
  • Frequently clean used surfaces (like counter tops or door knobs) with a virus-killing disinfectant.
  • For infants prone to getting RSV wash toys frequently.

New Preventative Vaccine

Moderna has developed a new preventative vaccine that is being tested at this time. This is particularly for people with immunodeficiency or people on chemotherapy. This vaccine has been developed similar to the COVID-19 vaccine, as it uses RNA technology to optimize protein and codon sequences.

In Summary

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is typically only a cold in healthy people. For infants and the elderly this virus can become very serious. Hospitalized patients will receive oxygen therapy, possibly fluids and sometimes steroids. Nebulizer treatments are also used. Preventative practices are very important for those infants and elderly people who are likely to get this virus.

References

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Pamela Oglesby

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