Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that causes lung and respiratory tract infections. It is highly contagious. A person infected with RSV spreads the virus in droplets when they cough, sneeze or talk.

Summary

RSV outbreaks are more common in the winter months. Almost all children will have had a RSV infection by their second birthday. However, immunity is not complete, and reinfection is common.

RSV is a common respiratory virus that causes respiratory tract infections, including the common cold.

Most adults and older children with RSV will experience symptoms similar to the common cold.

However, very young children and premature babies can become very sick and may require hospitalisation. In this age group RSV can cause bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small breathing tubes of the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lung).

Many children will be able to recover from this illness at home, but some will be admitted to hospital to support their feeding and to be given additional oxygen when that is needed.

Antibiotics are not usually helpful as it is a viral infection.

Older adults, people with compromised immune systems and those with heart or lungs conditions are also more at risk from RSV.

RSV and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses. If you have 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 doctor or Healthline (for free) on 0800 358 5453 to see if you need a test for COVID-19.

RSV can spread easily from person to person through droplets from a sneeze or cough. People can be infected by touching their nose or eyes after touching a person with RSV or contaminated items.

A person is usually infectious for up to 10 days after symptoms begin.

More information

Kidshealth has information to help you identify if your child is struggling to breathe:

Information for health professionals

Symptoms

If you or your child has RSV, the symptoms are:  

  • a runny nose  
  • coughing or sneezing
  • fever  
  • wheezing and difficulty breathing 
  • loss of appetite or difficulty feeding due to breathlessness.

In very young infants, the symptoms may subtle: irritability or decreased activity may be the only signs your child is unwell.

RSV infections may progress to cause pneumonia and bronchiolitis, especially in infants.

Shortness of breath or rapid breathing could be sign of pneumonia or bronchiolitis and requires immediate medical attention.

Breathing difficulties indicate there is inflammation in the airways caused by the viral infection.  

If you are concerned about your baby seek advice from your GP or call Healthline for free on 0800 611 116.

Information on when to seek help is available on the KidsHealth website. KidsHealth website is endorsed by the Ministry of Health to provide up-to-date information for whānau on children’s health. 

Treatment

Most people take about 10 days to recover and will get better on their own.

Staying home, getting lots of rest and ensuring you drink plenty of fluids can help ease the symptoms. 

Some children, particularly young infants, those born prematurely, and children with underlying health issues, will become seriously ill and require urgent hospitalisation.

Hospital treatment for RSV is focused on helping children with their breathing (for example, giving them oxygen) and feeding (for example, administering fluids through a feeding tube).

Antibiotics are never helpful as a treatment for RSV as it is a viral infection and antibiotics only work against bacteria. In some cases antibiotics may be prescribed if serious bacterial complications develop.

If you are concerned about your baby seek advice from your GP or call Healthline for free on 0800 611 116.

Prevention

The best way to prevent spread of the infection is to always practice good respiratory hygiene, especially people with symptoms that might be due to RSV (or other respiratory viruses).

RSV and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses, so the same advice applies for both.

As RSV is highly contagious, it’s important to:

  • stay home and stay away from toddlers and babies if you are sick
  • if your child, toddler or baby is sick, please keep them away from childcare centres or school until their symptoms have resolved
  • continue to use good hand hygiene – regularly wash and dry your hands
  • cough and sneeze into your elbows, carefully discard dirty tissues
  • do not share eating and drinking utensils
  • practise physical distancing
  • toys which are shared among children should be washed in warm water and detergent at the end of the day, or if they are sneezed on or mouthed.

There is no vaccine against RSV. However, it remains important to get immunised for other vaccine preventable illnesses such as pertussis (whooping cough).

When you get immunised, you protect your whānau, your community and future generations from harm.

See the Immunisation section for more information.

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