Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection is a common virus. In many cases the symptoms are similar to a cold and can be treated at home. However, some young children become seriously ill and need hospital care.
Key points about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.
RSV causes infections of your lungs and respiratory tract.
If it recurs in healthy adults and older children, RSV symptoms are mild and similar to the common cold.
However, in infants, the virus can cause serious illness including bronchiolitis and pneumonia (infection of your lung) and they may need hospital care.
There is no vaccine against RSV, but you can help prevent its spread by covering coughs and sneezes, hand washing and other hygiene measures.
What are the symptoms of RSV infection?
The symptoms of RSV infection are typical symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, fever (high temperature), wheezing and not feeling like eating. These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties. However, RSV can also cause serious illness, including bronchiolitis and pneumonia (infection of your lung).
Both RSV and COVID-19 are respiratory conditions. If you have any respiratory symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, head cold or loss of smell, with or without fever, stay at home and call your GP or Healthline's dedicated COVID-19 number 0800 358 5453 to check whether you need to be tested for COVID-19.
Is RSV infection common in Aotearoa New Zealand?
In New Zealand, RSV is the most common cause of hospitalisation for lower respiratory tract infections for under 2-year-olds. Admissions for the flu occur much less often. Like many other respiratory illnesses, Māori and Pasifika children are disproportionately affected, with 3 to 5 five times as many admissions as other groups. RSV infections in Aotearoa New Zealand generally occur during winter, but the timing and severity of RSV circulation in a given community can vary from year to year.
How is RSV infection spread?
RSV can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, as the virus droplets get in your eyes, nose or mouth. You can also get it from direct contact with the virus, eg, from kissing the face of a child with RSV. If you touch a surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touch your face before washing your hands, you can also get the virus. Children are often exposed to and infected with RSV outside their home, such as in school or childcare centers. RSV can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables and cot rails. It usually lives on soft surfaces, such as tissues and hands, for less time.
Who is most at risk of RSV infection?
People of any age can get another RSV infection, but infections later in life are generally less serious. People at highest risk for severe symptoms include:
young children with congenital (from birth) heart or chronic lung disease
young children with compromised (weakened) immune systems due to a medical condition or medical treatment
adults with compromised immune systems
older adults, especially those with underlying heart or lung disease.
How is RSV infection diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms, whether other close contacts have similar symptoms, your home environment and how long they have been sick. They will also do a clinical examination and, possibly, a throat swab or other tests.
How is RSV infection treated?
Most RSV infections go away on their own in 1 to 2 weeks. There is no specific treatment for RSV infection. Care involves relieving symptoms, such as to:
manage fever and pain with paracetamol
drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration (loss of body fluids).
Talk to your healthcare provider before giving your child cold and cough medicines. Some medicines contain ingredients that are not good for children.
A medicine called palivizumab (pah-lih-VIH-zu-mahb) is available by injection to prevent severe RSV illness in infants and children who are at high risk of severe illness, such as babies born prematurely or with congenital heart disease or chronic lung disease. The medicine can help prevent serious RSV disease, but it cannot help cure or treat children already suffering from serious RSV, and it cannot prevent infection with RSV. It must be given regularly to be effective.
Visit Health Navigator NZ for more information about whether there is a vaccine for RSV or if it can be prevented.