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What’s The Deal With Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a virus that causes upper and lower respiratory tract infections.  The virus is named “syncytial” based on the change in appearance that cells in the respiratory tract undergo when they’re infected by the virus, since “syncytial” is a Greek term for a cluster of cells.

RSV is one of the most common viruses in the world.  While it can affect people of all ages, RSV is more common in children ages 24 months old and younger, and it’s more likely to cause serious complications in children who are 12 months and younger.   RSV tends to be more serious in young children because their immune systems are less mature, and their airways are narrower than the airways of older children and adults.

Symptoms of RSV

RSV in otherwise healthy people often mimics the common cold, causing a stuffy nose, dry cough, low grade fever, sore throat and mild headaches.

In younger children and in patients with underlying respiratory diseases or a compromised immune system, RSV can cause wheezing, fever, a low oxygen saturation, respiratory distress and dehydration.  

Testing and Treatment for RSV

If RSV is suspected in someone experiencing significant symptoms, the diagnosis can be confirmed with a nasal swab.

There is no specific cure for RSV.  In otherwise healthy patients, the infection resolves on its own within 1-2 weeks.  Patients with significant symptoms can be treated with cough suppressants, nebulizer treatments, oxygen supplementation and medications for pain and fever.

The rate of RSV infections typically peaks during the U.S.’s cold and flu season, with most infections occurring in January and February each year.

Researchers are working to develop a vaccine for RSV, but it’s not available yet.  In the meantime, you can diminish the risk of RSV transmission by washing your hands frequently, covering your mouth when you cough, frequently disinfecting hard surfaces, and avoiding contact with anyone who is experiencing symptoms consistent with RSV.


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