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What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Published on Nov. 10, 2022

During cold and flu season, you may often also hear the term “RSV.” But what is RSV? How does it spread? And how can we prevent it?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that typically causes cold-like symptoms, like a sore throat, runny nose, cough and fever. RSV is most common in the fall to early spring months – our typical “cold and flu season.” For most kids and adults, RSV will seem like a standard cold, and with rest and hydration at home, they will bounce back after a week or two. But for babies, young children, and kids with complex health conditions or weakened immune systems, RSV is much more than “just a cold” – it can be serious enough to cause bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) or pneumonia that could require hospitalization or even be deadly.

What are symptoms of RSV?

RSV symptoms may seem similar to the common cold and can include:

  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing (which may cause your child to wheeze when they breathe)
  • Your child may not want to eat or drink because of the difficulty breathing
  • Babies may seem fussy or less active than normal
If your infant less than 2 months old has a fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or if your child is having difficulty breathing, is dehydrated, or seems excessively sleepy or sluggish, call 9-1-1 or bring your child to the nearest emergency department.

How does RSV spread?

RSV is spread through droplets in the air when a person sick with RSV coughs, sneezes, or talks. It can also be spread when a person sick with RSV touches or uses a shared surface (like door knobs, drinking glasses, etc.). People who catch the virus can spread it to others for about a week, so if you feel ill, it’s important to stay away from others as best as you can, and to wear a mask when around others. 

How is RSV treated?

It’s very important to understand that because RSV is caused by a viral infection, antibiotics will not be effective in treating it, since antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. There is no specific medication used to treat RSV, so supportive therapy is recommended: rest, lots of liquids and ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce fever.

How can we prevent RSV?

Because RSV spreads through close contact, people at higher risk of complications from RSV (like families with babies or children with weakened immune systems) may want to avoid places where lots of people gather indoors. You may want to consider wearing a mask when in these spaces. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially before and after eating and after using the restroom.

It’s also very important to stay home if you feel sick. Try to isolate yourself from other members of your household if you can, and if you do need to go out, wear a mask to prevent the spread of germs. Cover sneezes and coughs, and be sure to wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.


Learn More about RSV from the American Academy of Pediatrics

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is a great resource for parents, with information about RSV and other respiratory viruses. Visit the AAP's parenting website,, to learn more about RSV, its symptoms and how to prevent an RSV infection.