Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection

The respiratory syncytial virus is a sometimes poorly known, yet common microbe that can make some people very ill. Learn more about this ailment.

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV is a highly contagious and widespread virus that attacks the airways (bronchial tubes and lungs). It most often strikes in winter or early spring, and frequently causes epidemics. It is the leading cause of respiratory illness in babies.

It is estimated that most children are infected with the virus before the age of two, and then may be reinfected periodically (every two to three years). Older children and adults who are affected by it are generally not as sick.


Who is most likely to develop RSV infection?

Babies under the age of six months, the elderly, and those with immune system deficiencies, cardiopulmonary disorders, or neuromuscular diseases are most likely to experience severe symptoms or complications from this infection.


How do you get RSV?

RSV is spread in the same way as other well-known viruses such as the common cold or flu:

  • through close contact with an infected person (e.g., kissing, or shaking hands)
  • through contact with droplets released in the air by an infected person who coughs or sneezes
  • through contact with an object contaminated by the secretions of an infected person (utensil, straw, toy, door handle, etc.)

For infection to spread, the virus must enter the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes. Well-known infection control measures, such as keeping a two-meter distance and frequent handwashing and disinfection of objects, can significantly reduce the risk of contamination.

Since the virus can be transmitted to infants by adults, it is important to always wash hands thoroughly before interacting with or caring for a baby.


How do you recognize an RSV infection?

In young children, RSV infection can present as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. The most common signs and symptoms include:

  • fever
  • coughing
  • respiratory distress
  • wheezing
  • crackling sounds on auscultation
  • etc.

The infection sometimes presents as a mere cold (runny nose, congestion, decreased appetite, etc.). In infants under six months, respiratory distress may be the first symptom. In older children and healthy adults, the illness is often latent, or the symptoms are milder or moderate.


What are the treatment methods?

In most instances, time and the person's immune system must do their job. For mild to moderate cases, there are often no specific treatment measures to consider. The infection usually resolves within a week or two. Rest and adequate hydration are recommended.

For more severe cases, management is primarily based on supportive care such as hydration and supplemental oxygen, when necessary. These cases may require hospitalization.

Unfortunately, treatments used to treat other types of respiratory infections, such as antibiotics, cortisone derivatives and bronchodilators, are not helpful. Antibiotic treatment may be considered if there is a superinfection caused by bacteria. On rare occasions, other types of treatment may be considered for very vulnerable individuals.

Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help if fever is present. It is important to speak with a healthcare professional (doctor, pharmacist or nurse) before giving it to a child, especially if the child is under six months old. It is important to give exactly the right dosage and these professionals can calculate it according to the child's weight. It is better not to take any risks in this regard.

Remember that you should not give any medication intended to relieve cold or flu symptoms to a child under the age of six.


When should you seek medical attention?

You should bring your baby to the emergency room if they:

  • have a fever and are under three months old
  • are three months old or older and have had a fever for more than 48 hours
  • are experiencing respiratory distress: wheezing, enlarged nostrils on inhaling, retraction (breathing with muscles between or under the ribs), etc.
  • drink with difficulty because of coughing, nasal congestion or difficulty breathing
  • are vomiting or not eating
  • are urinating less than usual
  • show signs of dehydration
  • show signs that their general condition is altered (sluggish, agitated, crying a lot, etc.)
  • show unusual/concerning signs or symptoms (pallor, change in skin or lip colour, excessive sleepiness, etc.)

Don't hesitate to speak to your pharmacist for additional information on RSV infection.


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Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection

The respiratory syncytial virus is a sometimes poorly known, yet common microbe that can make some people very ill. Learn more about this ailment.
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