RSV Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors

RSV causes a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from very mild to life threatening. The type and severity of symptoms depend on multiple factors, including the particular strain of the virus and whether the patient has other underlying medical problems.

What Are the Symptoms of RSV?

  • Nasal congestion, runny nose, mild cough, and low-grade fever are the typical initial symptoms of both the mild and of the more severe forms of the disease.
  • Barking cough, which can be a sign of significant swelling in and around the vocal cords
  • Fever, either low grade (less than 101 degrees F) or high (more than 103 degrees F)
  • Difficulty breathing with one or more of the following:
    1. Abnormally fast breathing (tachypnea)
    2. "Caving-in" of the chest in between the ribs and under the ribs (chest wall retractions)
    3. "Spreading-out" of the nostrils with every breath (nasal flaring)
  • Wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound as the patient breathes out)
  • Difficulty drinking
  • Lethargy or irritability
  • Bluish color around the mouth, lips, and fingernails (cyanosis)
  • Apnea (stopping breathing) is a common symptom of RSV bronchiolitis among very young infants, especially those born prematurely

What Causes RSV?

RSV is caused by a virus and spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus enters the body through the nose or mouth or very often through the eyes (when people rub their eyes with a hand that has touched infected secretions.)

What Are Risk Factors?

  • Crowded places with people who may be infected
  • Exposure to other children (e.g., in daycare) or to older siblings attending school
  • Infants younger than 6 months of age
  • Young children, especially those under 1 year of age, who were born prematurely or who have an underlying condition, such as congenital heart or lung disease
  • Children with weakened immune systems
  • Adults with asthma, congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • People with immunodeficiency, including those with certain transplanted organs, leukemia, or HIV/AIDS

See tips to prevent RSV

When to See Your Doctor

You should call your doctor if you or your child is having trouble breathing; has poor appetite or decreased activity level, cold symptoms that become severe, or a shallow cough that continues throughout the day and night.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

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