Know the signs and symptoms of RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)  is a viral illness that causes symptoms such as trouble breathing – it is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies and young children.

RSV is a very common virus and almost all children are infected with it by the time they’re two years old – it is important to note that it is well documented and is not a novel or new illness, you may have heard it called different things, such as bronchiolitis.

It is often prevalent amongst young people during this time of year, however, as a result of the pandemic and social distancing, it has largely been suppressed throughout the past 18 months. As restrictions have eased we have started to see an increase in cases once again.

It is important for parents to note that most children infected with RSV will only experience mild symptoms such as a runny nose, coughing and sneezing, fever and wheezing and they probably won’t occur all at once. Most recover in around one or two weeks, and won’t need to see anybody.

However, in some instances, the virus can cause bronchiolitis – a lower respiratory tract infection that in some cases can prove severe, especially for those under the age of two – so it is best to know the signs and symptoms, and when you should seek further advice.

Please take a few minutes to read through the below information so you know what to expect if your child experiences RSV this winter.

On this page:

What are the signs and symptoms of RSV

People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within four to six days after getting infected. Symptoms include:

  • A runny nose
  • Decreased appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young infants with the virus, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday and most cases will clear up within a week or two.

Call your GP practice or NHS 111 if you or your child is having difficulty breathing, not drinking enough fluids, or experiencing worsening symptoms.

Who is most at risk?

RSV often occurs in yearly outbreaks and is most common in winter and early spring months.

The virus can affect a person of any age, but largely affects the very young and very old. Babies born prematurely or with heart, lung, or immune system diseases are at increased risk for more severe illness.

If at any point you are unsure what to do, call NHS 111 who will advise on your next steps. 

How can I prevent the spread?

Illnesses such as RSV often spread seasonally, and in places were young children often spend time within, so stopping the spread can be very difficult. There are however a few simple steps you can take as a paren or relative:

  • Wash your hands often: Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Washing your hands will help protect you from germs.
  • Keep your hands off your face: Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Germs spread this way.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Throw the tissue in the trash afterward.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces: Clean and disinfect surfaces that people frequently touch, such as doorknobs. When people infected
  • Stay home when you are ill: If possible, stay home from work, school, and public areas when you are sick. This will help protect others from catching your illness.

Caring for RSV at home

If you’re looking after your child at home, check on them regularly, including throughout the night. Most cases will clear up on their own within a week or so, but should their condition worsen, find out when you should call an ambulance.

There’s no medicine that can kill the virus that causes bronchiolitis, but you should be able to ease mild symptoms and make your child more comfortable with over the counter remedies for colds, coughs and similar ailments.

The following advice may make your child more comfortable while they recover:

  • Keep your child upright: Keeping your child upright may make it easier for them to breathe, which may help when they’re trying to feed.
  • Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids: If your child is being breastfed or bottle fed, try giving them smaller feeds more frequently. Some additional water or fruit juice may stop them becoming dehydrated.
  • Do not smoke at home: Inhaling smoke from cigarettes or other tobacco products may aggravate your child’s symptoms. Avoid smoking around your child. Passive smoking can affect the lining of your child’s airways, making them less resistant to infection. Keeping smoke away from your child may also help prevent future episodes of bronchiolitis.
  • Relieving a fever: If your child has a high temperature (fever) that’s upsetting them, you can use paracetamol or ibuprofen, depending on their age. These are available from pharmacies without a prescription. Babies and children can be given paracetamol to treat pain or fever if they’re over two months old. Ibuprofen may be given to babies aged 3 months or over who weigh at least 5kg (11lbs). Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when giving your child medication. Do not give aspirin to children under the age of 16. Do not try to reduce your child’s high temperature by sponging them with cold water or underdressing them.
  • Saline nasal drops: Saline (salt water) nasal drops are available from pharmacies without a prescription. Placing a couple of drops of saline inside your child’s nose before they feed may help to relieve a blocked nose. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions or check with your pharmacist before using saline nasal drops.

Call your GP practice or NHS 111 if you or your child is having difficulty breathing, not drinking enough fluids, or experiencing worsening symptoms.

When to seek further advice

Some children with RSV may need to be seen by a health professional, or admitted to hospital.

Most cases will clear up on their own within a week or so, but should their condition worsen, find out when you should call an ambulance.

This is usually necessary if they are not getting enough oxygen into their blood because they’re having difficulty breathing, or if they are not eating or drinking enough.

Children are more at risk of being admitted to hospital if they were born prematurely (before week 37 of pregnancy) or have an underlying health problem.

If admitted to hospital, your child will be closely monitored and, depending on the severity of their condition, may have a number of different treatments.

If you need further advice or help, please use the following services:

  • NHS 111 – just call 111 on your landline or mobile phone.
  • Your local GP practice – call the number of the practice you are registered with.
  • Out of hours GP – call 111 on your landline or mobile phone.
  • The Doncaster Same Day Health Centre – Open daily 10am to 8pm, Book an appointment on 0300 123 3103 or ring NHS 111.
  • Attend the Emergency Department at Doncaster Royal Infirmary or Bassetlaw Hospital – call 999 if it is an emergency and you need help right away.

Content out of date? Information wrong or not clear enough? Report this page.