RSV Explained (Infographic)

Child with RSV.jpg

RSV can disguise itself as the common cold but lead to severe illness in infants, toddlers and older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization for infants. “The majority of which don’t have any major risk factors,” says Stephen Rinderknecht, DO, UnityPoint Health.

Know the warning signs of this virus to ensure you get the care you, or your child, needs before the virus progresses.

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious upper respiratory infection of the lungs and breathing passages.

RSV Symptoms in Kids

RSV in babies and children may produce a more severe form of the illness where symptoms appear almost like an asthma attack with wheezing and shortness of breath

"One of the warning signs that your child should be seen by a provider is when they’re working too hard to breath. You can see the skin between their ribs pulling (retracting) in with each breath." says Dr. Andrew Sims, UnityPoint Health.

Other RSV symptoms in babies, before the virus becomes severe, may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite or taking in less fluids
  • Less activity

If your child is showing symptoms of RSV, Dr. Sims says, “Use a few drops of nasal saline in each nostril before suctioning with a bulb syringe. It can really help to clear the airway of infants during a cold. The best times to suction are before feedings and naps. If you’re not sure about how to suction, bring your suction device to your next appointment and ask your pediatrician to walk you through it."

It is also recommended to keep your child hydrated if they have RSV. 

RSV Symptoms in Adults

A runny nose, sore throat, cough and headache are usually the first signs of RSV in adults. Symptoms are typically mild. It’s time to head to the emergency room if you experience any of the following:

How Long is RSV Contagious

The RSV contagious period is 3 – 8 days, beginning up to two days before an individual starts showing symptoms of having the virus.

The virus, itself, is highly contagious as it can be spread through droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can be transferred from doorknobs, counter tops, clothing or skin-to-skin contact.

“The RSV season usually starts in October or November and goes into the springtime,” says Dr. Rinderknecht.

Many of the RSV waves occur in daycare centers.

Preventing RSV

Infants and babies are severely affected by RSV. RSV infections typically occur in epidemics, often occurring in daycares. It is recommended that you keep your newborn away from others as much as possible to reduce their exposure to respiratory viruses. An RSV vaccine is available for newborns, infants and adults over the age of 60.

“A long-acting, single dose of the RSV monoclonal antibody will be given to all newborns in the first week of life who are born during the RSV season, and all infants entering their first RSV season,” says Dr. Rinderknecht.

Additionally, an RSV vaccine is recommended for adults 60 years old and up.

“Most people don’t appreciate that RSV causes significant illness in adults. We all think of it as a baby thing, but if you look at how many people die from it, it’s the elderly. Talk to your physician, especially if you’re at increased risk of disease,” says Dr. Rinderknecht.

“The safety and efficacy for the vaccine is quite well proven. It has the same safety profile as pretty much any other vaccine you get. It also reduces doctor and ER visits by 75% and has minimal side effects,” he adds.

In addition to the vaccine, frequent handwashing can go a long way in preventing the virus from spreading. Be especially conscious of washing your hands after coming into contact with someone who has any cold symptoms. Always keep newborn babies and at-risk kids away from children who may be ill.

When to Call Your Doctor About RSV

If you, or your baby, has RSV, it’s important to contact your doctor about any of the following:

  • Wheezing or seems to be working harder to breathe
  • Decreased activity
  • Prolonged illness
  • Retracting of ribs
  • High fever

Check MyUnityPoint, our patient app, for same-day appointments with your provider or with someone on their care team. If no appointments are available, you can save your spot online at your closest walk-in care clinic. If symptoms are severe or life-threatening, visit your nearest emergency room.

RSV Explained Infographic

RSV infographic