Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) factsheet

Introduction

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that can cause the common cold. It is most common in the autumn and winter and is very contagious in young children.

RSV can cause severe infections that affect breathing, including:

  • bronchiolitis – when the small breathing tubes in the lungs become narrow and inflamed
  • pneumonia – when the air sacs in the lungs become infected.

Children who are at a higher risk of severe RSV include:

  • babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy
  • babies born with a low birth weight
  • babies under 12 months old
  • children under two years old who have other medical conditions.

 Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of RSV include:

  • runny nose 
  • cough 
  • fever 
  • headache 
  • being sleepier or less active than usual
  • feeling generally unwell.

Symptoms can be more severe in babies under six months of age. They can include: 

  • wheezing 
  • shortness of breath 
  • irritability 
  • poor feeding 

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance, or go to your nearest emergency department if your child shows severe symptoms like:

  • difficulty breathing 
  • grunting noises while breathing
  • dehydration – when a child is not taking in enough fluid 
  • blue-coloured lips or skin. 

Diagnosis

Your child’s doctor will check their symptoms and do a swab of their nose and throat, which will be tested for RSV and other viruses.

Treatment

RSV is generally treated with rest and fluids at home. Symptoms of RSV may get worse during the first 2-3 days and can last up to 10 days. Depending on how unwell they are, your child may take up to two weeks to recover.

Babies and children may need to be admitted to hospital for treatment if they:

  • have severe symptoms, including difficulty breathing
  • become dehydrated
  • develop another severe infection like bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Severe RSV is treated in hospital with:

  • fluids
  • oxygen
  • antibiotics to treat any secondary infections, like pneumonia.

 Management

How RSV spreads

RSV spreads very quickly through fluid droplets that contain the virus. Infected fluid droplets spread when sick people cough or sneeze into the air. 

The RSV virus spreads when infected fluid droplets get into the:

  • eyes
  • nose
  • mouth.

The RSV virus can also live on skin and objects like toys, cups, and doorknobs. 

Children can be infectious with RSV for three to eight days after their symptoms start. 

Supporting your child in having good hygiene is important to stop the spread of the RSV virus.

Good hygiene includes:

  • washing hands with soap before and after touching someone unwell
  • covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing
  • staying home when unwell or wearing a mask if you need to go out
  • not sharing cups, cutlery, toys and other items
  • cleaning surfaces and items in the home with disinfectant.

RSV monoclonal antibodies

RSV monoclonal antibodies are an immunisation for children that can lower the risk of severe RSV symptoms.

A monoclonal antibody is a type of protein made in a laboratory that helps the body fight harmful cells or viruses.

When the antibodies enter the bloodstream, they attach to the RSV virus like a shield and help to block it from infecting healthy cells.

RSV monoclonal antibodies can be given to:

  • babies from birth to 12 months old
  • children aged two years who have other medical conditions and are at risk of severe RSV.

Speak to your local doctor for more information about Monoclonal antibodies for RSV.

Last updated Wednesday 24th April 2024

Disclaimer

This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024


This factsheet was produced with support from John Hunter Children's Hospital.