RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, travels in a winter pack with cold and flu—and the trio show a lot of overlap in symptoms: coughing, fever, sneezing, and runny nose. Most RSV infections run their course in about a week; some lead to more severe infections like bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
The virus can live for hours on a doorknob, say, or a countertop. RSV spreads easily through direct contact—which is why regular handwashing is so important—and through the air. If someone with RSV coughs or sneezes near you, the virus may enter your body through your eyes, nose, or mouth.
You can expect symptoms to start in 4-5 days. But someone who has RSV is most contagious before symptoms start and can continue to spread the virus even after symptoms fade.
A flu shot won’t prevent RSV, but it can keep you from having to fight two respiratory illnesses at the same time. And isn’t one plenty? Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to treat RSV, although over-the-counter cold medications, pain relievers, or fever reducers may help with the symptoms.
Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration also is important. And then there’s not much to do but wait it out, unless breathing becomes difficult—in which case a visit to your healthcare provider is important. In severe cases, especially for very young children or anyone with a compromised immune system, hospitalization may become necessary.
That sounds scary, but the reality is that most people have had RSV before they’re out of diapers. And in the vast majority of those cases it passes without trouble.
Tips for Prevention
Your urge to stay cozy in your warm house during the winter may serve you well: The more people you come into contact with, the greater your odds of contracting RSV—especially since people can be contagious even without symptoms.
But staying home only goes so far. When you do venture out, or when someone in your family comes down with RSV, take a few easy precautions:
- Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. (Really.)
- Make sure you don’t drink out of the same cup as the sick person. This is no time to be sharing a bowl of popcorn, either.
- Clean your kitchen and bathroom surfaces regularly.
- It’s hard to keep up with young kids, who not only touch everything they can get their hands on but then put things in their mouths. Do your best to limit their access to questionable surfaces and to wipe down toys frequently.
When You Need a Doc
For anyone who has a chronic lung disease, RSV requires attention. Premature infants also are at greater risk of severe symptoms from RSV. (And for very young children, a decrease in appetite along with a runny nose and cough are the symptoms to watch for.)
Older adults, too, are at greater risk, especially those with weakened immune systems or heart disease.
If you or a loved one have any of these risk factors and suspect a case of RSV, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.