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Understanding Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a contagious virus that infects the respiratory tract and the lungs.

"As the winter season of 2023 begins, we're observing heightened respiratory virus activity, notably an increase in Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) cases," warns Dr. Robert Biernbaum, Chief Medical Officer WellNow Urgent Care, emphasizing the CDC's alert about rising RSV in the Southeastern United States. This surge suggests an early start to the RSV season, posing a significant concern for the health of infants, young children, and older adults. More information from the CDC can be found here.

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that infects the lungs and respiratory tract. RSV is usually mild, presenting similarly to the common cold. It affects people of all ages, but it poses a greater threat to infants, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems or heart and lung disease.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Mild RSV Symptoms: Most people will have mild symptoms of RSV, similar to those of a cold. These can include:

  • Dry cough

  • Sneezing

  • Runny nose

  • Nasal congestion

  • Headache

  • Sore throat

  • Low-grade fever

Severe RSV Symptoms in Adults:

  • Severe cough

  • Wheezing

  • Fever

  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing

  • Bluish skin on the nail beds and lips in light-skinned people

  • Gray or whitish gums or lips in dark-skinned people

Severe Symptoms of RSV in Babies: In infants, severe RSV infection can present the following signs and symptoms:

  • Lethargy

  • Irritability

  • Poor feeding

  • Cough

  • Breathing difficulty, with skin and chest muscles pulling in with each inward breath

  • Short, shallow, rapid breathing

When is Hospitalization Necessary for RSV?

Infants, and adults, over the age of 65, are at greater risk of complications from RSV. People with weakened immune systems or heart and lung disease are also at a higher risk. If the virus spreads to the lower respiratory tract, it can cause bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Seek emergency medical attention if an infant or at-risk person has a high fever, difficulty breathing, signs of dehydration, or cyanosis. Cyanosis is a symptom of lowered oxygen levels in the blood. It is most noticeable in the lips and fingertips. In light-skinned patients, the skin takes on a bluish or purplish hue. Cyanosis may look grayish or greenish in patients with yellow-toned skin. It is hardest to see on dark skin, where it may look grey or white.

Is RSV Contagious?

Yes, RSV is transmissible from person to person. People with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days, although this can increase to up to 4 weeks in some people. The virus is spread through droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs. If the droplets enter your eyes, nose, or mouth, you can contract the virus. This can happen when the droplets land on your face, or through direct contact such as kissing. It can also be transmitted through contact with surfaces the virus has landed on.

Can adults get RSV? 

People of all ages can get RSV. It often goes unnoticed in adults, appearing similar to the common cold.

Can you get RSV more than once?

Most people get RSV for the first time as a baby or toddler. Repeat infections can occur at any age in life.

How to treat RSV in adults

Most RSV infections clear up within 1-2 weeks. You can care for yourself at home by managing your symptoms. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used to reduce fever and pain. Over-the-counter cold medicines can also be used to ease symptoms. Remember to drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.

How to treat RSV in babies and toddlers

At-home care of infants and young children can help relieve their symptoms.

  • Use a bulb syringe to remove sticky discharge from your baby’s nose. You can add saline drops after syringing.

  • Keep the air moist with a cool-mist vaporizer.

  • Keep the child hydrated by frequently offering small amounts of fluids. Ask your child’s pediatrician if you should give electrolyte-replacing fluids.

  • Use fever reducers like acetaminophen. Never give aspirin to a child.

  • Make breathing easier by helping your baby stay in an upright position. You can use a baby seat or car seat for this during the day, and raise the head of your baby’s mattress by 3 inches at night. Place your baby on their back to sleep.

  • Do not smoke around your child; this could make their condition worse.

How is RSV treated at the hospital?

If you or your child experiences more serious symptoms, hospital treatment may be needed. Depending on how the virus is affecting you or your child, this can include the administration of IV fluids, supplemental oxygen, tube feeding, antivirals, and medications or intubation to open the airways.

How can I prevent myself or my child from getting RSV?

RSV is very widespread, but you can protect yourself through regular disease prevention measures. This includes hand washing, covering your mouth when you cough, staying home when sick, and social distancing. Keep up with vaccinations for other respiratory illnesses like the flu and COVID-19. This will lower the chance of getting both illnesses at once.

Where can I go for RSV treatment and testing?

 If you or your child are experiencing severe symptoms such as a high fever, shortness of breath, dehydration or cyanosis, seek emergency medical attention.If symptoms are milder, a visit to your doctor or pediatrician can help. To be seen quickly at a local clinic, use WellNow’s Location Finder to make an appointment or walk in. Based on the medical provider’s recommendation, you can get tested for RSV at any of our WellNow Urgent Care locations. You will receive the timely care and treatment options you and your child need to feel better.

Get tested for RSV and get on the best track to recovery. Find your WellNow Urgent Care location today.

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Information contained in this blog is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultations with healthcare professionals. The content is not meant to be complete or exhaustive or to apply to any specific individual's medical condition. Always refer to the personalized information given to you by your doctor or contact us directly.