Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common cause of childhood illness, but adults get it too. For healthy children and adults, an RSV infection is usually mild. It causes symptoms like headache, sneezing and coughing. Similar to the common cold, RSV symptoms usually clear up in about a week or two.
But RSV also can cause serious lung infections or breathing problems, particularly in babies, people with weakened immune systems and older adults. So it’s important for everyone to practice good respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette to help protect these vulnerable people by preventing the spread of RSV.
How does RSV spread?
Respiratory infections like RSV spread easily. When someone with RSV coughs or sneezes, they release droplets that contain the virus. The droplets might land in another person’s mouth, eyes or nose. The virus also can live on hard surfaces like railings, doorknobs and tables for several hours. So a person can get infected if he or she touches a contaminated handrail and then touches his or her face. RSV also can spread by shaking hands with or kissing an infected person, as well as from sharing items like drinking glasses or silverware.
When is a person contagious?
A person can have and spread RSV 1 to 2 days before the onset of symptoms and remain contagious for a total of 3 to 8 days. Certain people — such as infants and those with weakened immune systems — may be contagious for up to four weeks since it takes longer for their bodies to clear infections. Just like the common cold or influenza, RSV infections circulate in the United States mainly from late fall through early spring.
According to the CDC, symptoms usually appear 4 to 6 days after a person is infected and can include:
- Runny nose.
- Decreased appetite.
Tests are available to determine if you have RSV. But healthy people are not always tested since they are less likely to have severe disease. Instead, people with mild symptoms are encouraged to stay home or keep a distance from others to reduce the spread.
How can you avoid spreading RSV?
Respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette can help prevent the spread of RSV. According to the CDC, these include:
- Cough etiquette. Don’t cough or sneeze into your hands — use a tissue or your elbow.
- Good hand hygiene. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. You also can use hand sanitizer. It’s also helpful to try not to touch your face.
- Caution around cold symptoms. If you know someone is sick, try not to engage in physical touch like kissing or handshakes. Don’t share drinking glasses or silverware.
- Keeping your space clean. Disinfect often-used surfaces like handrails, doorknobs, faucets and tables.
- Keeping sickness to yourself. If you feel sick, do your best to stay home to stop the spread.
What else can I do to protect myself and loved ones from RSV?
Talk to your healthcare team about getting an RSV vaccine when it’s available. There are two vaccines to help prevent RSV lower respiratory tract disease in adults age 60 and older. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also recently approved one of the RSV vaccines for pregnant people to prevent lower respiratory tract disease in infants.
Children under 2 years of age might be able to get palivizumab (Synagis), a medication used to help prevent serious RSV disease. Palivizumab is usually given in monthly doses over five months. Palivizumab can’t cure or treat a child who already has RSV, so talk to your child’s healthcare provider if your child is at increased risk of severe illness. Premature infants and children with heart or lung disease or neuromuscular disorders may be eligible for palivizumab.
Finally, the FDA recently approved nirsevimab (Beyfortus) to help protect infants from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The medication, given as a single-dose injection, is a monoclonal antibody. According to the FDA, it is intended for babies born during or entering their first RSV season and for children up to 24 months of age who remain vulnerable to severe RSV disease through their second RSV season.
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