Respiratory Syncytial Virus

December 2, 2022

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is responsible for most upper respiratory infections, commonly known as the common cold. In most people infections with RSV yield mild signs and symptoms, often beginning with a sore throat and proceeding to nasal discharge (runny nose), poor appetite, tiredness, cough, and low-grade fever. The illness is self-limiting, generally lasting anywhere from a few days to two weeks. 

Infants and older adults, however, can become seriously ill. RSV causes pneumonia and bronchiolitis (infection of the small airways in the lungs) more often than any other virus in infants. In very young infants irritability, lowered activity, and breathing difficulties may be the only signs seen. Poor feeding and pauses in breathing lasting more than 10 seconds may also be seen. 

Older adults are susceptible to RSV because their immune systems can be weak. Every year about 6,000 to 10,000 adults over 65 years of age die due to RSV. The virus can complicate other conditions, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (bronchitis or emphysema), and asthma. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends several strategies for preventing the spread of RSV:

  • Handwashing for 20 seconds with soap or using an alcohol-based hand disinfectant
  • Disinfecting surfaces touched by patients with RSV
  • Covering sneezes and coughs
  • Staying home with a cold
  • Avoiding people with upper respiratory infections (URI’s)

Treatment consists of getting plenty of rest and taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen for fever. Antihistamines are not recommended, because they may prolong the infection and increase the likelihood of pneumonia. 

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