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What is RSV: Symptoms, Risks Treatment, and Prevention

What is RSV: Symptoms, Risks Treatment, and Prevention

, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 10 min reading time

COVID-19 isn't the only respiratory illness grabbing headlines these days. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is another common culprit, particularly troubling young children and infants. Studies reveal a staggering fact: among infants aged 0-2 years with RSV, about 52.1% of infections occur in babies under 6 months old. The nature of RSV, combined with the immature immune systems of infants, makes them particularly susceptible, compared to adults, to the severe impacts of this virus.

This vulnerability raises a lot of questions for parents and caregivers. What exactly is RSV? How can you spot it in your child? What are the treatment options, and how can you prevent infection? We'll delve into the symptoms, causes, and risks associated for all age groups with this virus in the next section.

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that infects the lungs and respiratory passages. It belongs to the family of viruses called Paramyxoviridae and it is one of the major causes of respiratory illness in people of all ages, particularly in infants and young children. It's a seasonal virus, typically peaking in the fall, winter, and early spring months, much like influenza.

RSV typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms in healthy adults and older children, but it can lead to more severe respiratory infections, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia, in young infants, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems.

How RSV spreads

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) primarily spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets containing the virus can then be inhaled by individuals nearby, allowing the virus to enter the respiratory tract and infect the cells lining the airways.

Additionally, RSV can spread through direct contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, as the virus can survive on surfaces for 3 to 30 hours. When a person touches a surface or object that has RSV on it and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes, they can introduce the virus into their body, leading to infection.

What are RSV symptoms?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) can cause a range of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, depending on the individual's age and overall health. The symptoms of RSV infection typically appear within 4 to 6 days after exposure to the virus and can last for one to two weeks. Here are some common symptoms associated with RSV:


  • Cough
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing (in severe cases of RSV infection)
  • Decreased appetite

It's important to note that the severity of RSV symptoms can vary widely among individuals, and some people, particularly healthy adults, may only experience mild symptoms or be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. However, infants, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of developing severe complications from RSV infection, such as:

  • Severe respiratory distress - Characterised by rapid or laboured breathing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.
  • Bronchiolitis - RSV is a leading cause of bronchiolitis, a condition characterised by inflammation and narrowing of the small airways in the lungs (bronchioles). This can lead to coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and low oxygen levels in the blood. Bronchiolitis is especially common in infants and young children.
  • Pneumonia - Pneumonia can cause symptoms such as fever, cough, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and fatigue. Severe cases of RSV pneumonia may require hospitalisation and treatment with antibiotics or antiviral medications.
  • Apnea - RSV infection can lead to apnea, a temporary cessation of breathing, especially in premature infants or infants with underlying health conditions. Apnea may require medical intervention to restore normal breathing and ensure adequate oxygenation.
  • Dehydration - Infants and young children with RSV infection may experience decreased fluid intake due to difficulty feeding or loss of appetite. 

It's worth noting that the symptoms of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) can sometimes overlap with those of COVID-19 and influenza. Therefore, it's essential to be aware of the distinct differences between these respiratory illnesses

When is RSV most contagious?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the window of contagiousness for RSV can vary depending on the individual. Typically, you're contagious for 3 to 8 days after infection, but the virus can be sneaky and spread a day or two before symptoms even show up

For some infants and those with weakened immune systems, the risk is even greater. In these cases, the virus can linger and remain contagious for up to 4 weeks after symptoms disappear.

How do you test for RSV?

Testing for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) typically involves collecting respiratory specimens, such as nasal secretions or throat swabs, from individuals suspected of having RSV infection. These specimens are then analysed using various diagnostic tests to detect the presence of the virus. 

Here are some common methods used to test for RSV:

  • Rapid Antigen Detection Test (RADT) - RADT is a commonly used point-of-care test that detects viral antigens present in respiratory specimens. This test provides rapid results, typically within 15-30 minutes, making it useful for quick diagnosis in clinical settings.
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test - PCR is a highly sensitive molecular diagnostic test that detects the genetic material (RNA) of the RSV virus in respiratory specimens. PCR testing can accurately identify RSV infection and distinguish between different strains of the virus. This test is often performed in laboratory settings and may take several hours to yield results.
  • Viral Culture - Viral culture involves growing RSV virus particles obtained from respiratory specimens in a laboratory setting. Although less commonly used due to its longer turnaround time (several days to weeks), viral culture can provide valuable information about the infecting RSV strain and its susceptibility to antiviral medications.
  • Immunofluorescence Assay (IFA) - IFA is a laboratory-based test that uses fluorescently labelled antibodies to detect RSV antigens in respiratory specimens. While less commonly used than RADT or PCR, IFA can provide rapid results and is often used for research purposes or in specialised laboratory settings

Can you test for RSV at home?

Yes, you can test for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) at home using rapid antigen test kits. In Australia, there are now rapid antigen test kits for RSV available for self-testing at home. These test kits allow individuals to collect respiratory specimens, such as nasal swabs, and perform the test themselves to detect the presence of RSV antigens.

Given that RSV symptoms can overlap with those of COVID-19 and influenza, it can be challenging to determine the appropriate management and treatment for respiratory illnesses. In such cases, a highly accurate and reliable combo rapid antigen test can be valuable for identifying the specific viral infection causing the symptoms.

One such option is the HA Tech RSV, SARS-CoV-2 & Influenza A/B Combo Rapid Antigen Test Kit. This test kit is designed to detect antigens from RSV, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), and influenza A/B viruses simultaneously, providing comprehensive diagnostic information. Plus, it is Australian made and TGA-listed, so you can be sure of its quality and reliability for home use. 

Treatment and management of RSV

The treatment and management of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infection primarily focus on relieving symptoms and preventing complications, especially in high-risk individuals such as infants, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems. 

Here are some common treatment and management strategies for RSV:

  • Supportive care measures include rest, hydration, and fever management with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (for infants and children).
  • Nasal saline drops or spray to relieve nasal congestion and improve breathing
  • Humidification
  • Suctioning with a bulb syringe or nasal aspirator can help remove excess mucus and improve breathing.
  • Supplemental oxygen therapy (in severe cases of RSV infection)
  • Bronchodilator medications 
  • Antiviral medications such as ribavirin

RSV prevention strategies

RSV infection primarily involves implementing strategies to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, especially in high-risk populations such as infants, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems.

  • Practise good hand hygiene by washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing, sneezing, or touching surfaces in public areas. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitiser that you can carry everywhere with you. 
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing to prevent respiratory droplets containing the virus from spreading to others. Dispose of tissues in the trash immediately after use and wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Avoid close contact with individuals who are sick, especially if they have symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing, sneezing, or fever. 
  • Staying home when sick
  • Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects in your home, such as doorknobs, light switches, countertops, and toys. Use TGA-approved disinfectants that are effective against respiratory viruses, including RSV.
  • Avoid sharing personal items  - In certain high-risk populations, such as premature infants or infants with underlying health conditions, healthcare providers may recommend prophylactic treatment with a medication called palivizumab during RSV season to reduce the risk of severe infection


This guide has equipped you with the knowledge to recognise symptoms, explore treatment options, and implement effective prevention strategies.

RSV can impact people of all ages, though young children and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for complications. So, with that in mind, early detection is key. If you experience concerning symptoms, consult your healthcare provider. With proper care and monitoring, most individuals recover from RSV within a week or two.

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