Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection

  • Medical Author:
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP
    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP is the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, and completed her residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Indiana University.

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Is RSV infection contagious, and how is RSV infection transmitted?

RSV disease is very highly contagious. Annually 100,000-120,000 babies less than 1 year old require hospitalization. The RSV incubation period (time between exposure and development of symptoms) is two to eight days. It is spread via respiratory secretions through close contact with infected people or contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. Infection can occur when infectious particles contacts mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth, or nose, and possibly through the inhalation of droplets generated by a sneeze or cough. Those who develop RSV are contagious during the first three to eight days of their illness.

What are the symptoms of RSV infection?

The symptoms in most infants are similar to those of a bad cold. These include fever, prominent runny nose, and nasal congestion. The duration of these symptoms is one to two weeks. During their first RSV infection, some babies and young children also have signs and symptoms of bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Bronchiolitis is a clinical state of infants (by definition) during which inflammation of the terminal airways restricts airflow and may produce wheezing. The majority of children hospitalized for RSV infection are under 6 months of age. The need for supplemental oxygen, IV fluids, and pulmonary inhalation therapy are the most common indicators for hospitalization. If wheezing causes an infant's respiratory rate to increase substantially, they may have a difficult time taking in adequate fluids and become dehydrated.

Following childhood, RSV may cause repeated infections with moderate-to-severe cold-like symptoms although severe lower respiratory tract disease (pneumonia and/or wheezing) may occur with RSV at any age.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/18/2015

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