Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Medically reviewed by Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

RSV Diagnosis

If you think that you may have RSV, see your provider. Your provider will be able to diagnose you based on a physical examination and will listen to your lungs using a stethoscope to check for wheezing and other abnormal sounds.

Further laboratory and imaging tests may be done to rule out any other conditions. These may include:

  • Blood tests: to check for white blood cell counts and look for viruses or other pathogens.
  • A chest X-ray: which may show signs of inflammation or abnormalities.
  • Swabs of secretions from the mouth and nose: This test is also referred to as RSV rapid detection15 or RSV indirect immunofluorescence assay (IFA).

The test looks for antigens in your nose and throat in order to quickly diagnose an infection. These antigens are the molecules on the virus which trigger the body to produce antibodies.

This test has an accuracy rate of 80–90% in RSV diagnosis. It is commonly used in babies and young children in order to make a quick and early diagnosis and rule out any other respiratory diseases so that treatment can begin and limit the spread of infection.

  • Pulse oximetry: a painless skin monitoring technique that detects blood oxygen levels.

If you have any concerns about your symptoms, even if they appear unrelated, speak to your medical provider.

Seek immediate medical attention if your child or anyone at risk of severe RSV infection has difficulty breathing, a high fever, or a blue color to the skin or nails—particularly on the lips or in the nail beds.

RSV causes

RSV is caused by direct or indirect contact16. For example, you are likely to be exposed to RSV if a person infected with the RSV virus coughs or sneezes near you, or if you touch a contaminated toy or handrail. Outbreaks are most common between fall and spring.

Other RSV causes include being in crowded environments where the disease can rapidly spread from person to person. For example, children aged 2 and under attending childcare centers may place them in close proximity to others. Some may have brothers or sisters who may be infected at school and bring home the virus.

Groups who are higher risk of developing life-threatening RSV infections include:

  • Premature infants
  • Young children17 who have congenital heart or lung disease
  • Children with weakened immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or transplantation
  • Older adults
  • Adults with asthma, congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • People with immunodeficiency, including those with certain transplanted organs, leukemia, or HIV/AIDS
  • Those living in developing countries with poor sanitation and restricted access to medical care

Much collaborative work is being done by scientists in labs and universities across the world. This research aims to improve scientific knowledge and understanding about RSV and how it causes disease, as well as factors in animals and humans that affect susceptibility to RSV infection.

Ultimately, it is hoped that this knowledge may eventually be translated into new, safe, and effective ways to treat and prevent RSV.

Palivizumab (Synagis) may be used in specific high-risk pediatric populations to prevent RSV infection. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published a specific set of guidelines for use in premature babies and infants who are at high risk of developing serious complications upon contracting RSV.

Several new treatments are currently being tested in clinical trials in babies.

Is RSV contagious?

Respiratory syncytial virus is classified in the order mononegavirales. This is the same taxonomic group as Ebola, mumps and measles. These tiny capsules of genetic material are smaller than cells and cannot be seen by the naked eye.

In order to survive, all viruses follow the same lytic cycle. They hijack the host cell DNA and use it to replicate, eventually bursting the cell, destroying it in its process.

Like all viruses, RSV cannot survive outside its host. RSV is spread from person to person via droplet infection. Coughs and sneezes cause the virus to spread from an infected person through the air from which they may be inhaled by an uninfected person.

Direct contact such as hand-holding or indirect contact with surfaces such as doorknobs, toys or eating from utensils covered in droplets containing the RSV virus also enable it to spread. RSV can survive for many hours on hard surfaces.

Symptoms last for around a week during which a person infected with RSV is contagious. Recovery occurs when the body makes the necessary antibodies to attack and destroy the virus.

Sometimes the recovery time may take longer. This is particularly the case in individuals with a weakened immune system or other medical conditions. Therefore, they may be contagious for longer periods.

At present, there is no known vaccine to prevent the spread of RSV although much work is being done in order to develop a suitable vaccine. In the same way as bacteria, viruses are continually evolving, making the job of developing a vaccine highly difficult. Unlike bacterial infections, viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.

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