What is Respiratory Syncitial Virus?

RSVRSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus, is a virus that causes upper and lower respiratory infections. People of all ages can contract the virus, but it is usually the young infants, especially the ones born prematurely, who have the most severe symptoms. It is the most well known cause of bronchiolitis, or inflammation of the small airways in the lungs. 

In much of the United States, the peak of RSV season lasts from November to April, though the timing varies from year to year. It is highly contagious and can be transmitted through respiratory droplets spread by coughing or sneezing. It can also be transmitted by direct contact with respiratory secretions, or even indirectly through contact with objects that have been exposed to respiratory secretions. The symptoms include runny nose, stuffy nose, and cough. Infants may have difficulty feeding. Fever may be present as well. It can seem like just a cold. However, it can progress to wheezing and respiratory distress, as well as secondary infections, such as pneumonia. For most people, RSV causes just a mild illness that lasts 1 to 2 weeks. Reasons to call or visit the doctor are persistent fevers, poor oral intake resulting in dehydration, and labored breathing.  

As with many viruses, there is no medication to treat or prevent RSV. Proper hand washing can help to prevent the transmission of RSV. Treatment focuses on minimizing the symptoms and maintaining adequate hydration. Nasal suctioning can help to clear the nasal passageway. For children with more severe symptoms, hospitalization may be necessary to provide supplemental oxygen and IV fluids. Sometimes breathing treatments and oral steroids may be given, as well as antibiotics if secondary bacterial pneumonia develops.  

Palivisumab is an injectable medication that can be given to the infants at risk for severe disease. It does not prevent or cure RSV, but it can prevent the development of more serious symptoms in infants who are at high risk for serious disease, i.e. the infants born very prematurely or have chronic lung or heart disease.

About Mary Le, MD

I am a pediatrician with Via Christi Clinic on West 21st Street in Wichita, Kan.
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