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This respiratory infection has symptoms much like those of the common cold. It’s often diagnosed in children, but it can affect adults, too.

When a kid’s sneezing, coughing and blowing their nose, it’s normal to think they have a cold — especially in the fall or winter. However, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is another possibility. This highly contagious lung infection can lead to serious complications, especially in young children and adults with weakened immunity.

The virus spreads through direct contact or through infected respiratory droplets in the air. RSV can enter the body through the eyes, nose or mouth — so if you touch a contaminated object and rub your eye, you’re likely to be infected. The virus can live for hours on hard surfaces.

Symptoms of RSV

There’s no easy way to know for sure if someone has RSV. Symptoms of RSV are similar to those of many other common respiratory illnesses, like the common cold, flu or COVID-19. 

They include:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Wheezing
  • Fever
  • Less appetite

However, infants or small children (the populations most susceptible to RSV) can have other symptoms besides those listed above. Look for symptoms like:

  • Fast breathing
  • Rhythmic grunting while breathing
  • Flaring of nostrils
  • Head bobbing with breathing
  • Belly breathing

“Symptoms of RSV will appear in stages — not all at once,” says Kathleen Noss, DO, pediatrician and northeast medical director of pediatrics at Geisinger. “Irritability and decreased activity are also symptoms in infants and young children.”

People are most contagious for about a week after symptoms appear. For some, like young children or those with a weakened immune system, the virus can continue to spread even after symptoms go away, for up to four weeks.

Those most at risk for contracting RSV include:

  • Premature infants
  • Infants under 6 months old
  • Children and adults with weakened immune systems (such as those being treated for cancer)
  • Children and adults with chronic heart or lung conditions
  • Adults over the age of 65

Treatment for RSV

RSV can most often be treated at home and will resolve on its own within two weeks. You can manage symptoms of this lung infection with over-the-counter medications and home remedies like:

  • Taking over-the-counter pain and fever reducers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Note: Children under 6 months old should not take ibuprofen. Children should also not take aspirin, which can lead to Reye syndrome, a potentially life-threatening illness.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Getting plenty of rest.

When to see a doctor

RSV can lead to more serious infections, like bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia, and it’s the leading cause of hospitalization among children under 6 months of age.

Children with weakened immune systems from pre-existing conditions like congenital heart defects and chronic lung conditions are also more likely to have complications from RSV.

“If you or your child are having difficulty breathing, have a high fever or believe you are dehydrated, get medical attention immediately,” says Dr. Noss.

RSV and COVID-19

Getting your annual flu shot and a COVID-19 booster if you’re eligible can help protect you from common viral illnesses and, if you do get sick, lessen the severity of symptoms. 

There is no vaccine for RSV, but if you’re protected from other viral illnesses, your provider can narrow down the likely cause of your symptoms and get you the right treatment. 

It’s also possible to get more than one illness at the same time. “Having RSV can lower immunity and raise the risk of getting COVID-19 or another respiratory illness,” says Dr. Noss.

Preventing RSV

There are steps you can take to help prevent RSV. 

  • Wash your (and your little ones’) hands frequently. Use soap and water, and wash for at least 20 seconds.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hand.
  • If you’re sick, avoid close contact with others. This includes hugging, kissing, shaking hands and sharing utensils.
  • Sanitize high-touch areas in your home, like light switches, cell phones and doorknobs.

Next steps:

Meet Kathleen Noss, DO
What to do if your child is sick this winter
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