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RSV Symptoms

Respiratory syncytial virus is highly contagious and can be severe for babies, the elderly and others.

Parents should have their childs' RSV symptoms examined by a doctor. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Parents should have their childs' RSV symptoms examined by a doctor.

RSV Symptoms

RSV symptoms are the result of the respiratory syncytial virus, which is a common viral infection of the respiratory tract and lungs. RSV is very contagious, and is spread through droplets of mucus and saliva when infected people cough or sneeze. The virus is very hearty and can live on hard surfaces and fabrics. RSV is so common that it infects most children before they reach age 2.

RSV symptoms are sometimes mistaken for symptoms of the common cold virus. Although RSV can and does infect adults, it is most common in young children and babies. It is not typically severe, but can become dangerous for babies, young children, the elderly and those with heart or lung problems. According to the March of Dimes, RSV can occur at any time, but it is most common between October and March. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that 2 percent of infants hospitalized with an RSV infection die each year. Therefore, paying close attention to RSV symptoms and knowing when to seek medical treatment is vital.

RSV Signs and Symptoms

RSV symptoms will appear approximately 4 to 6 days after exposure to the virus. Symptoms in older children and healthy adults are usually mild. They may experience a congested or runny nose, headache, mild fever, dry cough and a general feeling of discomfort. They may also have a decrease in appetite.

RSV can sometimes lead to symptoms that are more serious, especially in children younger than 3 years of age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under 1 year of age. Infants are often affected more severely than older children.

Parents and caregivers should look for symptoms, such as severe cough, rapid breathing, wheezing, high fever and difficulty breathing. Wheezing is a whistling noise upon exhaling that sometimes accompanies RSV. An infant may indicate difficulty breathing by contracting chest muscles to a greater degree than normal. Patients may also experience a bluish tint to the skin because of a lack of oxygen. Infants may refuse to eat and display lethargy and irritability.

When to Seek Medical Care

Older children and healthy adults may not even realize they have RSV, and may assume that they simply have a cold. In these cases, the patient does not need medical care and the infection will take from 1 to 2 weeks to leave the body.

However, RSV can sometimes develop into a life-threatening infection that requires hospitalization or other medical care. This is a serious concern with very young babies, especially babies who were born prematurely, and high-risk people with heart and lung disease. This disease can progress very quickly in this population, so it is important to see a doctor at the earliest onset of symptoms.

Patients infected with RSV who are experiencing difficulty breathing, high fever or blue tint to the skin, lips or fingernails should seek medical care. A cough or a runny or congested nose that produces yellow, green or gray mucus are also causes for concern. In addition, patients who experience dehydration, extreme lethargy or irritability and babies who refuse to breast or bottle feed should see a doctor immediately.

Children with RSV may experience a mild fever. While a fever is a sign that the body is fighting an infection and not always a cause for concern, a high temperature can be dangerous. This is usually not something to be concerned about in healthy older children, but needs to be monitored in babies and very young children. A high temperature is over 100.4 F in babies under 3 months, over 101 F in children 3 to 6 months, over 102 F in children over 2 years old and over 103 F in adults. The Mayo Clinic advises people with a high fever to seek medical care.

What to Expect at a Doctor's Visit

During a visit to a medical practitioner for RSV treatment, the doctor will assess the severity of the infection and decide what type of treatment would best suit the patient. The doctor is likely to check for a fever, listen to the lungs for abnormal sounds such as wheezing and check the skin for oxygen level in the blood. The doctor may also order chest X-rays, blood tests and lab tests of respiratory secretions to make a definitive diagnosis.

There is not one specific treatment for RSV; patients may require antiviral medicines, supplemental oxygen or intubation with mechanical ventilation. It may also be necessary to suction mucus from the airways of some patients.

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