Learn About Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

RSV is a common respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms in children and adults.

Key Facts

  • Severe RSV can be unpredictable and is the leading cause of hospitalization in infants.
  • Adults 65 and over and adults with chronic conditions or weakened immune systems are at high risk for developing severe RSV.
  • People do not form long-lasting immunity to RSV and can become infected repeatedly over their lifetime.

Each year in the United States, RSV leads to:

80K 58,000-80,000 hospitalizations in children under 5.
160K 60,000-160,000 hospitalizations in adults 65 or older.
10K 6,000-10,000 deaths in adults 65 or older.

What Causes RSV?

RSV is spread from person to person through close contact with someone who is infected via secretions from coughing and sneezing or touching objects such as toys or doorknobs that have the virus on them.

It takes between two and eight days from the time of exposure for someone to become ill. The illness normally lasts three to seven days, and it is during this time that those infected are most contagious. The peak season for RSV infection in the United States is fall through spring.

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Recognizing Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in your Children

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Rocky (00:08):
Hi, my name is Rocky.

Tristan (00:09):
I'm Tristan, and our twin sons are Alexander and Diego. The first time we experienced RSV in our family was when Alexander was a little over a year old.

Rocky (00:19):
Alex was gasping forever, like he was drowning in a pool. That's when we, Tristan and I, realized this is something serious that we need to rush him to the hospital. I think we both felt scared at that time because we've never experienced anything like this and we didn't realize what was going on.

Tristan (00:37):
RSV was something we had heard about, but I don't think until you actually experience it, you can really be prepared for exactly how dramatic of a change your kids can go through in a very short period of time. One of the things I think that we were so shocked about RSV is how quickly it became sort of a medical emergency. I think I felt like, what did I do wrong as a parent? What did I miss? What should I have done differently to not get to this point so quickly? And that was a very scary part of RSV and something I was not prepared for.

Rocky (01:14):
The first time that Alex was admitted to the hospital for RSV, we spent about little over a day there.

Tristan (01:20):
Diego then came down with RSV, and that time he also, a few days after getting RSV, he then was diagnosed with pneumonia. And then after that, Diego was in the hospital again with RSV. And then several months later, Alex was in the hospital again with RSV. Each time we were in the hospital with RSV, we knew that, okay, a few days later, the other one will have it.

Rocky (01:47):
The advice I would have for new parents when it comes to RSV, one is trust your instinct when it comes to your child. Be an advocate for them. That's what we did. Two is be aware of where the child sleeps at night when they're sick. Stay close to them. And three, for us, be aware of where the closest hospital is, especially when you're traveling.

Tristan (02:08):
Like Rocky said, be an advocate for your kids, but really push. Try to find a doctor that listens to you. Try to find a doctor that can help you to figure out what do we do and how do we get the best treatment? And how do we know how to best sort of deal with RSV when it happens? Because it's not a matter of if it's going to happen, it's a matter of what it's going to be like when it happens. So as a parent, I wish I would've known more about RSV.

Rocky (02:37):
Again, as Tristan just stated, please contact your pediatrician and ask any questions you may have because it could escalate pretty rapidly.

Tristan (02:46):
Today, the twins are doing great. They are healthy, happy five year old boys that like to play soccer, like to play with toys, that don't like to eat vegetables, and love to play with our friends. So we're very lucky now that we were able to find such great advocates to help us out through the challenges of RSV during the first few years of their lives.

Support for this educational campaign is provided by Sanofi. Learn more at Lung.org/rsv.

Who Is at Risk for RSV?

Most children will get an RSV before age two simply because of contact with other children. Being in crowded places with people who may be infected or having exposure to other children or siblings who may be infected are common ways to pick up the virus.

Those at increased risk of RSV becoming severe or life-threatening are:

  • Infants up to one year old, especially those who are 6 months and younger
  • Infants born prematurely
  • Children younger than two with congenital heart disease or chronic lung disease
  • Children with weakened immune systems or who have neuromuscular disorders
  • Older adults 
  • Adults with chronic lung or heart disease, such as asthma, congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Adults with weakened immune systems, such as people receiving organ transplants, people undergoing chemotherapy or individuals with HIV/AIDS
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Nearly 100% of infants will contract RSV. While symptoms can be cold-like, they also can be more severe and even life threatening. Contact your healthcare provider should your child develop symptoms. Support for this educational campaign is provided by Sanofi Pasteur.

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Nearly 100% of children will be infected with Respiratory Syncytial Virus by age 2. Symptoms can be like a common cold. However, it can be life threatening. Trouble breathing or dehydration are signs of severe illness. RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization of all infants. Contact your healthcare provider if symptoms worsen. Visit lung.org slash rsv to learn more.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: October 10, 2023

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