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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection - Topic Overview

Respiratory syncytial virus infection, usually called RSV, is a lot like a bad cold. It causes the same symptoms. And like a cold, it is very common and very contagious. Most children have had it at least once by age 2.

RSV is usually not something to worry about. But it can lead to pneumonia or other problems in some people, especially babies. So it's important to watch the symptoms and call your doctor if they get worse.

A virus causes RSV infection. Like a cold virus, RSV attacks your nose, eyes, throat, and lungs. It spreads like a cold too, when you cough, sneeze, or share food or drinks.

There are many kinds of RSV, so your body never becomes immune to it. You can get it again and again throughout your life, sometimes during the same season.

RSV usually causes the same symptoms as a bad cold, such as:

Babies with RSV may also:

  • Have no energy.
  • Act fussy or cranky.
  • Be less hungry than usual.

Some children have more serious symptoms, like wheezing. Call your doctor if your child is wheezing or having trouble breathing.

Doctors usually diagnose RSV by asking about your or your child's symptoms and by knowing whether there is an outbreak of the infection in your area.

There are tests for RSV, but they aren't usually needed. Your doctor may want to do testing if you or your child may be likely to have other problems. The most common test uses a sample of the drainage from your nose.

RSV usually goes away on its own. For most people, home treatment is all that is needed. If your child has RSV:

  • Prop up your child's head to make it easier to breathe and sleep.
  • Suction your baby's nose if he or she can't breathe well enough to eat or sleep.
  • Relieve fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, if needed. Never give aspirin to someone younger than 20 years, because it can cause Reye syndrome, a serious but rare problem.
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