By Dr. Katie E. Golden, MD

Another season. Another virus. It seems these respiratory bugs keep coming up with new material to stay in the spotlight. COVID continues to dominate the scene with its ever changing variants. But the flu has come fast out of the gate this year to give COVID a run for its money. And now we are seeing another competitor enter the scene: RSV.

RSV is not a new virus by any means. But it’s making a strong showing after laying low the last couple winter seasons. (Like the rest of us.) The good news is that for most people, RSV is mild and not a worrisome contender. But for babies and other populations, RSV can affect the lungs and lead to dangerous breathing problems. So let’s go through what you need to know to keep you and your loved ones safe.

What is RSV?

RSV is a virus that infects the respiratory system. It stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It is one of the many viruses that causes the common cold. And it spreads the same way too — through respiratory droplets. 

For most people, the symptoms are less severe than COVID or the flu. They will experience typical cold-like symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough

Most people feel sick for about 3 to 5 days and then quickly recover.

But for others, the virus can affect the lungs and cause pneumonia or bronchiolitis. This is especially true for babies, people with a weakened immune system, and those with underlying lung conditions. When this happens, the symptoms tend to be a bit more severe. In addition to the symptoms above, this can can lead to trouble breathing.

When people get this more severe version of an RSV infection, it typically lasts a bit longer. Their symptoms could last for weeks to even months.

Is RSV Dangerous?

For most people, RSV is not dangerous. Older children and healthy adults are unlikely to have any serious infection or complications. 

But RSV can be dangerous for babies, especially if they are younger than 6 months old. If RSV affects their lungs and causes bronchiolitis, babies can develop life-threatening breathing problems. They can also get dangerously dehydrated. The signs of RSV bronchiolitis in a baby are: 

  • Severe congestion in the nose
  • Fast breathing
  • An appearance like they are working harder to breath
  • Trouble with nursing or taking a bottle because of their breathing
  • Pale skin, or blue skin around the lips
  • Lethargy
  • Significant decrease in the number of wet diapers

RSV can also be dangerous for older adults (those over 65 years old), adults with weaker immune systems, or those with lung conditions like asthma or COPD.

What is the treatment for RSV?

Like most cold viruses, there is no specific treatment for RSV. People will make a full recovery with time and rest. And some people may use over-the-counter medicines to help them along the way — like ibuprofen or tylenol to help with fever, decongestants, or cough medicine.

Babies with bronchiolitis are sometimes kept in the hospital until they turn the corner. This is so hospital staff can keep a close eye on their breathing, and provide breathing support when needed. When babies (or sicker adults) are admitted for bronchiolitis, they may receive supplemental oxygen or IV fluids. In very severe cases, they may need intubation and mechanical ventilation. 

What should I do if I think I or my child has RSV?

Babies who have any of the bronchiolitis symptoms listed above should see a healthcare provider right away. If your regular provider is unavailable, take them to the nearest ER. 

Older children and adults usually do not need to take any special measures if they have RSV. And they can usually skip a visit to the doctor. There is no special treatment for RSV. And even though there is a nasal swab that can diagnose it — similar to the swab for COVID — it is not routinely tested unless someone has severe symptoms.

But even if you (or your baby) are over 6 months old, you should seek emergency care if you are experiencing:

  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Breathing that gets in the way of talking, eating, or drinking 
  • Persistent wheezing, especially if it is not going away with your regular inhaler or nebulizer treatments
  • Chest pain
  • Concern for dehydration
  • Lethargy or confusion

Even if respiratory viruses have a strong showing this season, your local ER doctors are ready for the fight. We are here to help when you need it.