Is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Contagious?

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Risk Factors

Who is at risk for severe disease?

Several broad categories of patients are most vulnerable to RSV infection. These include:

  • premature infants and all infants less than 1 year of age,
  • children 2 years old with cardiac disease or chronic lung disease (for example, asthma, cystic fibrosis, etc.),
  • those of any age with a compromised immune system, and
  • those 65 years of age or older.

Is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) contagious?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is contagious. In the United States, it's the most common cause of inflammation of the small airways in the lungs (bronchiolitis) and of pneumonia in children under 1 year of age. It also is significant cause of respiratory illnesses in older adults. Nearly all children in the U.S. will have been infected by RSV by 2 years of age. RSV usually causes a mild respiratory infection, but it can occasionally cause more serious infections that require hospitalization from breathing compromise with bronchiolitis or pneumonia. RSV was discovered in 1956 (isolated from a chimpanzee but later found to be from human origins) and was designated chimpanzee coryza agent by J. Morris and associates. Years later, the viruses were renamed respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). In virology terminology, RSV is an enveloped RNA virus and is a member of the family Paramyxoviridae that infects lung tissue.

What is the incubation period for a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection?

Most infants and children and older adults usually develop symptoms about four to six days after their first exposure to RSV. This is referred to as the incubation period. Symptoms of RSV include a runny nose and decreased appetite followed by coughing, sneezing, no fever or a mild fever at one to three days. Most individuals with RSV who are otherwise healthy do not require hospitalization. However, some very young infants and others may develop more serious symptoms of wheezing, irritability, decreased activity, cyanosis (blue-gray color to skin) and breathing difficulties. Some of these individuals may require short (three to five days) hospital stays. Even more severe infections can require supported breathing. Definitive diagnosis can be done by viral cultures, detecting RSV antigens, PCR assays, and molecular probes (molecules used to detect other molecules or structures).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/16/2016

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Newsletters

Get the latest health and medical information delivered direct to your inbox!

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors