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JAMA Patient Page
January 3, 2017

Respiratory Syncytial Virus

JAMA. 2017;317(1):98. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.17882

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that causes infections of the respiratory system.

Infections caused by RSV include upper respiratory tract infections (“colds”), bronchiolitis (infection of the lung passages), and pneumonia. Respiratory syncytial virus spreads from person to person when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, allowing the virus to be carried to other people on droplets of saliva or mucus. In the United States, RSV infection is most common from late fall to early spring.

Young children, especially babies younger than 1 year, have the highest risk of getting RSV infection. Children are often exposed to RSV outside the home, especially at school or day care. However, RSV infection can happen at any age. Very young and very old people and people with a weakened immune system can develop severe infection. You can get RSV even if you have had this virus in the past.

Symptoms of RSV

Most people with RSV start having symptoms about 3 to 7 days after being exposed. Common symptoms include fever, runny nose or nasal congestion, cough, chest congestion, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Rarely, infants with RSV infection may have periods during which they stop breathing (apneas).

Diagnosis of RSV

Diagnosis of RSV is usually based on clinical symptoms. However, there are special tests to detect the virus using a swab that is placed through the nose to the back of the throat. These tests are used mostly in hospitals and emergency departments.


There is no specific treatment for RSV, and antibiotics are not helpful for this infection. There are medications that can help relieve symptoms (like acetaminophen for fever or albuterol for wheezing), but there are no specific medications that work against the virus. Most people’s symptoms improve within 1 to 2 weeks. In severe cases, patients may need to be hospitalized for a short time.

Preventing RSV Infection

People who have RSV (or any other cold-like symptoms) should cover their coughs and sneezes and wash their hands frequently. Do not share cups or utensils and avoid kissing others who are not sick. Be especially carefully around people with weak immune systems. Research is being done to make a vaccine to prevent RSV.

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Article Information

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: All authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Topic: Infectious Diseases