Employee & Community Health

Think you have a cold or flu? It might be RSV

10/22/2018 by Dr. Robert M. Jacobson and Jennifer Brickley, RN


RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. This virus can cause coughs, cold-like symptoms and fever, and lead to ear, sinus, eye and lung infections. 

RSV infections occur most commonly in winter — starting as early as December and peaking before March. 

In infants and young children, RSV causes a wheezy type of lung infection (bronchiolitis). Patients look and sound like they are having an asthma attack. Unlike asthma, infants with bronchiolitis do not respond to asthma medicines, such as albuterol and corticosteroids. 

Premature infants, as well as full-term infants with underlying health conditions, may need to go to the hospital due to RSV. There, doctors and nurses can support them with intravenous fluids and oxygen until they recover. 

RSV is particularly bad for older adults and those whose immune systems are weakened by medicines or disease. It's estimated that RSV may be responsible for as many as 25% of wintertime deaths that before had been blamed on influenza (flu). 

Is there a vaccine against RSV?

All of us get RSV; more than 80% of us before we turn two years old. And we keep getting it over and over throughout childhood and adulthood. 

We don't have a vaccine to prevent RSV, but we certainly wish we did. However, there is a medicine that gives temporary immunity. Palivizumab (Synagis®) is given as an intramuscular injection once a month. High-risk babies get palivizumab from November to March. Even so, this vaccine doesn't guarantee that they won't get RSV. But for these high-risk babies, it's all we have, other than hand-washing and avoiding exposure to others. 

What can you do to prevent RSV?

There are some things you and your family can do to prevent RSV. Most people get it from direct contact with others, and the virus survives on surfaces for hours. So your hands are major sources of infection from RSV. Wash them with soap and water, and teach your family to wash their hands often, too. Everyone should be washing their hands before eating; touching their eyes, nose or mouth; preparing meals; and after greeting people. 

If you are ill with what seems like RSV, stay home until your fever is gone for 24 hours, cover your cough, and wash your hands. Most people are infectious for three to eight days, while infants can be infectious for a month. 

By washing your hands, covering your cough and staying home from work or school if you're sick, you can control RSV's effect on you and your family. 

Dr. Robert M. Jacobson is a primary care pediatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine and medical director of the ECH Immunization Program. 

Jennifer Brickley is a registered nurse in ECH and coordinator of the ECH Immunization Program.