What is RSV?
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover from RSV in 1 to 2 weeks but it can be especially dangerous for infants and young children and adults over 65, especially those with certain high risk medical conditions. High-risk groups include premature infants, children younger than 2 years of age, those with chronic lung or heart conditions, weakened immune systems, or neuromuscular disorders.
Symptoms of RSV infection usually include runny nose, decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, and wheezing. These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within 4 to 6 days after getting infected.
In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties. RSV may not be severe when an infant or young child starts showing symptoms but it can become severe a few days into the illness, even requiring hospitalization. Especially serious, the CDC indicates that RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than 1 year of age in the U.S.
Infections in healthy children and adults are generally less severe than among infants and older adults with certain medical conditions. However, some severe effects such as pneumonia can occur in older and high-risk adults.
How do people get infected with RSV?
The CDC reports that people are typically infected with RSV for the first time as an infant or toddler, and nearly all children are infected before their 2nd birthday. However, repeat infections may occur throughout life, and people of any age can be infected.
People are exposed to the RSV from other people, including airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing, and surfaces that have residual virus. 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 and infected with RSV outside the home such as in school or childcare centers, they can then transmit the virus to other members of the family.
People infected with RSV are assumed contagious to others for 3 to 8 days including 1 to 2 days before they start showing signs of illness. However, some infants, and people with weakened immune systems, can still spread the virus even after they stop showing symptoms, for as long as 4 weeks.
Both CDC and military public health tracking data have shown that cases of RSV are most common in fall and winter.
Military medical facilities report their cases of RSV so that trends are described in military public health surveillance reports (see our Influenza Surveillance reports).
Both the CDC and military public health surveillance data showed an increase in RSV detections and RSV-associated emergency department visits and hospitalizations in multiple U.S. regions in the fall of 2022. The risk of contracting RSV was especially a concern given the risks of flu and COVID-19, also respiratory conditions, during this same time.
What can you do to prevent RSV?
Individuals at high risk should get an RSV vaccine (talk to your health care provider):
The CDC recommends the following steps can be taken to prevent the spread of RSV:
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper shirt sleeve
- Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Clean frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs and mobile devices
- Avoid touching nose/eyes/mouth
- Avoid close contact (e.g., kissing, shaking hands, sharing utensils) with sick people
Ideally, the CDC also recommends the following for protecting children at high risk for severe RSV disease:
- People with cold-like symptoms should not interact with high-risk children
- Limit time spent in childcare centers or other potentially contagious settings during periods of high RSV activity
Learn more at: https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html