The sniffles, a cough or a scratchy throat usually mean you have a common cold. But sometimes, they are symptoms of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). This highly contagious, seasonal virus can cause severe breathing problems in young children and older adults.

If you, your child or a loved one experiences trouble breathing and has common cold-like symptoms, the expert primary care providers at Baptist Health can help. Find a primary care or pediatric doctor near you.

What is RSV?

RSV is a virus that spreads mainly during the fall and winter months. It leads to an infection in your lungs and respiratory tract. RSV is the most common cause of inflammation in your lung’s small airways. It’s also the leading cause of pneumonia in infants. For most people, though, RSV is a mild illness that lasts for one to two weeks.

People can spread RSV during the three to eight days when they experience symptoms. It spreads through saliva and mucus, so you can catch it when you come into contact with fluid from an infected person’s mouth or nose. For example, you can catch RSV if you’re nearby and breathe in when an infected person sneezes. You can also catch it if you wipe your eyes, nose or mouth after touching a contaminated surface.

Individuals at risk for RSV

RSV can affect anyone. RSV has infected most children by age 2 at least once. Premature babies or infants under 12 months of age may have had severe infections. Because RSV is highly contagious, children who spend time in daycare or school are at greater risk. RSV is also a bigger threat to children with:

  • Chronic lung disease
  • Congenital heart disease (heart disease from birth)
  • Neuromuscular disorders like muscular dystrophy
  • Weakened immune symptoms from cancer treatment

RSV can also impact adults. Adults over age 65, individuals with compromised immune systems and people with heart or lung disease are at higher risk for more severe RSV infections.

RSV symptoms

RSV symptoms typically appear four to six days after exposure. For most children and adults, symptoms are mild and mimic the common cold. These signs can include:

  • Congestion
  • Decreased appetite
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Little interest in playing (in children)
  • Low-grade fever (below 100.3°F)
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing

Signs of a more severe infection in adults can include:

  • Blue or grey skin color
  • Difficult or rapid breathing
  • High fever (100.4°F and above)
  • Flaring nostrils while breathing
  • Noisy breathing
  • Pausing while breathing in short, shallow breaths
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing

Signs of severe infection in infants include:

  • Cough
  • Extreme fatigue and sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding
  • Short, shallow and fast breathing
  • Struggling to breathe (chest muscles pull in with each breath)

When to see a doctor

If you or your child experience any of the above symptoms of RSV, contact your primary care doctor or pediatrician. After hours, go to your nearest urgent care provider. If you or child’s symptoms are severe, go directly to the emergency room or contact 911 for immediate help.

Complications linked to RSV

While most RSV infections are mild, some patients may experience additional health complications. Some of these complications can result in hospitalization or may be life-threatening. These problems can include:

  • Bronchitis (inflammation in your larger airways)
  • Bronchiolitis (inflammation in your smaller airways)
  • Dehydration
  • Ear infections
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Pneumonia
  • Respiratory failure
  • Worsening of existing conditions (such as asthma, congestive heart failure or constructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Diagnosing RSV

Our highly trained primary care providers will conduct a thorough exam to determine if you or your loved one has RSV. To reach a diagnosis, they can:

  • Complete a blood test to detect signs of RSV.
  • Complete a comprehensive physical exam that includes listening to your lungs.
  • Discuss your medical history and current symptoms.
  • Examine chest X-rays to detect signs of inflammation or other complications.
  • Run a swab test to check your mucus for RSV.

Treatments for RSV

No specific treatment for RSV exists. So, stay home and rest if you feel sick. Because it’s a virus, antibiotics won’t clear up the infection. Instead, our providers may suggest the same treatments you use to manage regular cold symptoms. Their recommendations may include:

  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever
  • Cool mist humidified to ease breathing
  • Drinking plenty of fluid to avoid dehydration
  • Nasal saline spray and suctioning (to reduce cough and congestion, particularly in infants)

If you or your loved one are hospitalized for more severe RSV, our providers may:

  • Deliver intravenous fluids to keep you hydrated
  • Give you oxygen through a breathing machine (ventilator), mask or nasal prongs
  • Suction mucus from your airways

Our providers may also use tube feeding to provide liquid nutrition for infants with severe RSV infection.

Preventing RSV

While it’s not always possible to prevent an RSV infection, you can take steps to reduce your risk.

These healthy habits can help prevent infection:

  • Avoid exposure and limit contact with people who have fevers and colds
  • Don’t smoke (it increases your risk of more severe illness)
  • Don’t share glasses, plates or utensils
  • Sanitize countertops, doorknobs, handles and toys
  • Wash your hands regularly

There are also other options available to protect babies and older adults.

  • Antibody protection: Providers can give a single-dose injection of nirsevimab to infants younger than 8 months during their first fall and winter (RSV season). This antibody injection can also protect children between 8 months and 19 months if they are at high risk for severe disease during their second RSV season.
  • Vaccine for pregnant people: Pregnant people can receive a single-dose injection of Abrysvo™ between their 32nd and 36th week of pregnancy if they happen from September to January. This vaccination will prevent RSV in infants from birth to 6 months.
  • Vaccine for older adults: Adults over 60 with weakened immune systems, heart disease or lung disease can receive single-dose injections of Abrysvo™ or another vaccine called Arexvy™. Providers recommend these vaccines for all older adults, especially those at high risk of severe RSV infection.

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