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Respiratory syncytial (sin-city-al) virus (RSV) is the most common cause of respiratory and breathing infections in children. It is a virus that causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages, and is one of the most frequent causes of the common cold.
RSV can affect people of all ages. Most children aged under two years have been infected by RSV at some stage, and it is possible to get RSV over and over again. Good hygiene habits can reduce the chance of your child getting the virus or passing it on to others.
After exposure to the virus, your child may only develop symptoms around five days later. RSV in children is normally associated with mild to moderate cold-like symptoms, which generally last between eight and 15 days. If your child has RSV they may have some or all of the following
RSV is a common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under one year old. If your child has asthma, RSV is likely to trigger their asthma symptoms.
Most cases of RSV are mild and can be treated with rest at home. If your child has RSV:
Take your child to the GP if:
Call an ambulance or go to your nearest hospital emergency department if your child is turning blue, having trouble breathing, or is breathing very quickly.
After seeing your child, the doctor may ask to review your child again the following day. Take them back sooner if your child:
Children with RSV are usually infectious (able to pass the virus onto others) for eight days from the start of their symptoms. RSV is very contagious and can live on surfaces for several hours, and on unwashed hands for 30–60 minutes. RSV spreads quickly and easily among children through
coughing and sneezing, and sharing cups and other objects that have been in contact with the infected child's mouth, nose or eyes.
It can be difficult to stop the spread of RSV; however, practising good hygiene will help avoid passing any virus onto others.
If your child has RSV (or cold-like symptoms), it is important to keep them away from newborn babies or people who are immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system).
What's the difference between a cold and RSV?
RSV is one of many viruses that causes the common cold, and
it can be hard to tell which virus your child has. It doesn't really matter if
we know which virus it is, because treatment is the same – plenty of rest and
fluids, and no antibiotics, because antibiotics don't work on viruses. However,
RSV can lead to other problems in some children, including bronchiolitis and
pneumonia. It can also worsen existing problems, like asthma.
Is there a vaccine to prevent RSV?
There is currently no vaccine to prevent RSV.
However, researchers are working towards developing vaccines and antiviral
therapies to help protect infants and young children, as well as pregnant
women, from severe RSV infection. If your child were to contract RSV a second
time in the same season, their illness is likely to be more mild than the first
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Infection Control department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed May 2018.
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