Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common virus that leads to mild cold-like symptoms in healthy adults and children, but can be more serious in young babies and those in high-risk groups.
RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia in infants under one year old. It is very contagious and almost all children are infected by the time they are two, but only a small percentage develop a severe illness.
Babies are at the highest risk of contracting RSV. Premature babies and those who have underdeveloped lungs or did not receive enough antibodies from their mother are particularly at risk as are infants with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease and anyone with weak immune systems.
In rare cases, RSV can cause death in infants, though this is unlikely if the child is seen by a doctor in the early stages of the disease. RSV can also cause other complications including bronchiolitis, croup, ear infections, lung failure, and pneumonia.
If an infant is having difficulty breathing, the parents or child care providers should call a doctor immediately because the situation can quickly worsen.
Because RSV can be dangerous for young infants, pediatricians generally recommend that babies not be taken out into public during times when the virus is prevalent. Outbreaks generally occur during the winter, but the exact timing and severity varies from year to year.
RSV is passed through fluids; when a person with RSV coughs or sneezes, small droplets can land on other people or on surfaces that others will touch. These infected droplets enter the body when a person touches their eyes or nose after touching an infected surface. Because RSV is very contagious, people with cold-like symptoms should cover their coughs and sneezes and frequently wash their hands.
Like the flu or a cold, RSV can infect a person several times during the lifetime. When it affects adults, it is generally less severe and is often much like a common cold.