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Respiratory syncytial virus

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that infects your airways and lungs. It is highly contagious and spreads easily. The main treatment for RSV is rest and plenty of fluids. Regular handwashing and good personal hygiene can stop RSV from spreading.

What is RSV?

RSV or respiratory syncytial virus can cause breathing problems and lung infections in children including bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

Older people and people who have problems with their heart, lungs or immune system are also at risk.

What causes RSV?

RSV spreads between people if an infected person produces small water droplets while talking, coughing and sneezing.

These droplets are then breathed in by others nearby.

It also spreads through hand-to-hand contact, or through contact with items (for example, tissues) that contain mucus from the nose or throat of an infected person.

You can also pick up RSV from hard surfaces, such as door handles, that have been touched by infected people. RSV survives for longer on hard surfaces than softer surfaces like tissues and hands.

RSV diagnosis

RSV is diagnosed through blood tests or through tests of the mucus from your airways or nasal passages.

RSV symptoms

Symptoms usually start with fever, runny nose, coughing and wheezing. Ear infections are also common.

Symptoms may progress to pneumonia and bronchiolitis, especially in infants. Children with asthma or breathing problems will find these get worse when they have RSV.

RSV treatment

Most cases of RSV are mild and the main treatment is to get lots of rest and drink lots of fluids. Babies with RSV need small amounts of water regularly.

Use paracetamol for fever, but never give aspirin to children under 12. Antibiotics don’t work against RSV. Most people recover from RSV in about 10 days. Children take around 8 to 15 days to recover.

RSV prevention

RSV can be prevented by:

  • washing your hands - soap and water kills the virus
  • keeping infected people away from others, especially babies and older people
  • not sharing cups, glasses or cutlery with people who have colds
  • covering your nose and mouth if you need to sneeze or cough
  • throwing out tissues as soon as you’ve used them.

Last reviewed: December 2015

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