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7 Things to Know About RSV

Close-up of a toddler with his eyes closed, laying in a hospital bed with an oxygen tube taped up to his nose.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a respiratory virus that causes mild, cold-like symptoms, which each year leads to about 2.1 million outpatient hospital visits in children under 5 years old. RSV infections can also be dangerous for certain adult populations. It is estimated between 60,000–120,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized with the virus each year, with up to 10,000 succumbing to the infection. For the second year in a row, there has been an unprecedented spike in pediatric cases of RSV earlier in the year than anticipated. The virus typically spreads in the fall and winter months; however, this past spring saw 60% more RSV cases than in the spring of 2021. RSV can be life-threatening in infants and older adults. Currently, there is no vaccine for the virus; however, here are answers to seven commonly asked questions about RSV to help keep you and your family healthy.

What is RSV?

The respiratory virus infects the upper and lower respiratory system. As the body sends immune cells to virus-infected cells to fight the disease, it causes inflammation in the airways (nose, throat, and lungs). In adults, RSV can lead to worsening asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and congestive heart failure.

How does RSV spread?

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the virus transmits via droplets. People can also pick up RSV when touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching their face. Small children normally pick up the virus outside of the home. Important to note, older adults over 65 are the next most susceptible group.

When is RSV season?

According to the CDC, in the United States and other areas with similar climates, RSV circulation starts during fall and peaks in the winter; however, for the last two years, the United States has seen an uptick in pediatric cases starting in the spring and summer.

Why are we seeing a surge in RSV cases?

Experts cite two reasons why we are seeing a spike in RSV cases. One is the ease of COVID-19 prevention methods like masking, social distancing, and isolation away from large gatherings. Returning to group celebrations and in-person activities have made way for easier transmission of viruses like RSV and the flu. The secondary result of those COVID-19 prevention methods is an “immunity gap” of people, especially young children not exposed to viruses, who did not build up the immunity to ward off respiratory viruses like RSV.

Are RSV and Croup the same?

RSV and Croup are two different viruses. While both RSV and Croup can cause a loud cough, RSV causes a lower respiratory cough that is often wet sounding. Croup causes a dry upper respiratory cough that has a distinct sound like a seal’s bark. Furthermore, Croup is caused by the parainfluenza virus which makes the upper airways swell, including the vocal cords and windpipe. Anyone can contract Croup, but the virus is rarely identifiable in older children and adults because their airways are larger.

Which adult groups are at the highest risk for severe RSV infection?

  • Adults 65 and older
  • Adults with chronic heart or lung disease
  • Adults with weakened immune systems

Without a vaccine, how do we prevent RSV?

The precautions people took for COVID-19 will keep them safe from all viruses. Washing hands for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching your face, isolating when presenting with cold-like symptoms, and covering coughs and sneezes will help prevent the spread of RSV. According to the CDC, almost all children will have contracted RSV by their second birthday. When symptoms of a cough, runny nose, decrease in appetite, fever, and wheezing occur, manage fever and pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Be sure to talk with your health care provider before administering cold medicine, and reach out if the child is having difficulty breathing or symptoms worsen.