Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that causes lung infections. It’s very common. Read more about the symptoms and management.

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV for short, leads to lung infections, causing symptoms similar to that of a common cold. It can affect people of any age with varying levels of severity. RSV season hits mostly in the winter months from October to February. The peak time for infections tends to be December.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

The symptoms of RSV are what is often described as a common cold for the majority of people. These symptoms may include:

  • Cough

  • Runny or blocked nose

  • Headache 

  • Slight fever 

  • Sneezing 

In some cases, the symptoms of RSV are more severe. RSV symptoms in infants, the elderly and those with a compromised immune system are often in this category. More severe symptoms include:

  • Severe cough

  • Worsened fever

  • Faster breathing

  • Wheezing (a high-pitched noise you breathe out)

Some of these symptoms may be caused by bronchiolitis. RSV is the main cause of bronchiolitis in infants and young children which causes narrowing of the small airways. This can make it difficult to breathe normally.

RSV in children

Children are prone to catching RSV and having more severe symptoms. The symptoms can include:

  • Tired

  • Irritable

  • Struggling to breathe 

  • Breathing rapidly 

If a child has RSV, they will usually be well again after 1 or 2 weeks. 

RSV in babies is usually more severe than RSV symptoms in adults. This is because their immune system isn’t fully developed yet, so they can’t fight off the infection as effectively. They may struggle to bottle or breastfeed properly.  

How common is RSV?

RSV is a common virus. Around 60% of children will have been infected by their first birthday, and 80% by the time they’re 2 years old.

What causes RSV?

RSV is caused by the spread of the virus in droplets. This could be spread from person to person by:

  • Coughing

  • Sneezing

  • Kissing

  • Touching a surface that has a virus on it, then touching your face

The virus can survive for 4 to 7 hours on hard surfaces. If you touch the surface, it can spread easily from your hands to your nose or mouth and into your lungs.

The virus also lives in droplets that spread through the air when someone sneezes or coughs. If you’re near someone who’s infected, it can spread this way. 

Who is at risk of RSV?

People who have a lower level of immunity are most at risk of RSV. This includes:

  • Infants 

  • Older adults

  • Anyone with a weakened immune system

Anyone who spends a lot of time around people with RSV also has an increased risk. This includes people who work in hospitals or infection care settings.

How can I prevent RSV?

The best way to prevent RSV is through basic hygiene measures. This includes:

  • Washing your hands often 

  • Cough into a tissue or your hand

  • Sneeze into a tissue or your hand

  • Preparing food with good hygiene

  • Avoiding sharing glasses or food 

  • Allowing plenty of airflow into a room 

  • Avoiding close contact with someone who has symptoms

  • Cleaning surfaces often 

How is RSV diagnosed?

A doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. You may also have a physical exam where the doctor will listen to your lungs using a stethoscope. 

Other tests you may have include:

  • Blood tests

  • Pulse oximetry to check oxygen levels

  • A chest X-ray 

  • A swab taken from the nose and the throat

How is RSV treated?

There is not a specific treatment for RSV but some simple measures can help such as:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water 

  • Take over-the-counter medication for fever, like ibuprofen or paracetamol

  • Rest and get plenty of sleep

If your infection is more severe, you may be admitted for treatment in hospital. This could include getting fluids through your veins and oxygen. 

How long does RSV last?

RSV can last different lengths of time depending on the person, but it usually lasts for 1 or 2 weeks.

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you think you may have RSV and are worried, it is best to seek advice about how to manage your symptoms from your doctor. If your child has symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing or struggling to drink then it is important that you seek help urgently. 

How can Livi help?

A Livi healthcare professional can ask you about your symptoms and provide medical advice to you. Livi GPs can give prescriptions for acute conditions.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi