Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a very common virus in the winter and spring months in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is one of many viruses that cause infections of the respiratory tract - the parts of the body related to breathing. Most older children have symptoms similar to a cold. Some babies and young children become seriously ill and need hospital care.

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Key points to remember about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection

  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a very common virus in the winter and spring months in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • RSV causes infections of the respiratory tract (the parts of the body related to breathing)
  • the symptoms are similar to a cold
  • most children don't have serious problems
  • in some babies and young children, the virus can cause serious illness including bronchiolitis and pneumonia
  • these babies and young children may need hospital care
  • RSV spreads very easily - wash hands regularly and keep babies and young children away from people who have colds and coughs
  • if your baby or child has any new respiratory symptoms, please keep them away from daycare or school until they no longer have symptoms, and call Healthline on 0800 611 116

What is RSV infection?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a very common virus in the winter and spring months in New Zealand. It is one of many viruses that cause infections of the respiratory tract. The respiratory tract is the parts of the body related to breathing like the nose, windpipe, air passages in the lungs, and the lungs.

How can you catch RSV?

RSV is very easy to catch. Infectious droplets spread through the air after an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. You can also catch RSV by touching a surface with infected saliva or mucus.

Children often catch RSV at school or daycare. They can take it home to their baby brothers and sisters who can get very sick from RSV.

Almost all children get an RSV infection by the time they are 2 years old.

RSV outbreaks are more common in the winter and spring months.

How serious is RSV infection?

Most older children have symptoms similar to a common cold. But, babies and very young children can get very sick, and need to go to hospital. In this age group, RSV can also cause bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

Read about bronchiolitis

Read about pneumonia

Which children are most at risk of RSV infection?

Those at highest risk of getting very sick include:

  • young babies
  • premature babies
  • babies and young children with heart or lung problems
  • babies and young children with weakened infection-fighting (immune) systems
  • babies and young children who are around people who smoke

See how you can prevent your baby or young child getting RSV infection further down the page. 

What are the signs and symptoms of RSV infection?

The symptoms of RSV infection include:

  • a runny nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • loss of appetite or difficulty feeding due to breathlessness

In very young babies with RSV, the only symptoms may be:

  • being irritable
  • decreased activity
  • breathing difficulties

Someone is usually infectious (can spread the virus) for up to 10 days after symptoms begin.

What should I do if my baby or child has new respiratory symptoms?

If your child has any new respiratory symptoms, keep your baby or child home from childcare centres or school. Phone Healthline (for free) on 0800 611 116 or your doctor as soon as possible for advice. Make sure to phone your doctor before visiting.

Please keep your baby or child away from childcare centres or school until they no longer have symptoms.

When should I seek help for my child with RSV infection?

When do I need to see a doctor?

You should see your family doctor or go to an after-hours medical centre urgently if your baby or young child:

  • is under 3 months old
  • is breathing fast, has noisy breathing and is having to use extra effort to breathe
  • looks pale and unwell
  • is taking less than half of their normal feeds
  • is vomiting
  • has not had a wet nappy for more than 6 hours

You should also see a doctor if you are worried about your baby or young child.

Even if you've already seen your doctor, if your child's breathing gets worse or you are worried, take your child back to the doctor.

Check the signs that show your child is struggling to breathe

When should I dial 111?

Dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) and ask for urgent medical help if your baby or young child:

  • has blue lips and tongue
  • has severe difficulty breathing
  • is becoming very sleepy and not easy to wake up
  • is very pale
  • is floppy
  • has breathing that is not regular, or pauses in breathing

What is the treatment for RSV infection?

Most children get better by themselves

Most children with RSV infections get better by themselves without any special treatment. There is no specific treatment for RSV infection.

Babies and young children with more serious illness may need to go to hospital

Sometimes babies and young children need help with their breathing. This might include extra oxygen through small soft plastic tubes that fit into your child's nose.

If your baby is not drinking enough, they may need feeding through a nasogastric tube (a tube through the nose into the stomach) or fluid through an intravenous drip (into a vein).

Can I care for my child with RSV infection at home?

Many children will be able to recover from this illness at home.

Babies and children who can stay at home

  • those who are feeding or eating well
  • those who do not look sick
  • those who are not working too hard with their breathing

Suggestions for looking after your baby or young child

If your baby or child is sick, please keep them away from childcare centres or school until they no longer have symptoms.

  • babies with RSV infection may not be able to feed for as long as usual - offer smaller feeds more often
  • give your child as much rest as possible
  • don't smoke in the house or around your child
  • keep your baby's nose clear - if it is blocked or crusty you can use saline nose drops (from a pharmacy)
  • to stop RSV infection spreading, keep your baby or child away from other children - and keep them home from daycare and school
  • if your child is miserable and upset, you can give paracetamol - you must follow the dosage instructions on the bottle; it is dangerous to give more than the recommended dose

Remember to sleep baby on their back in their own bed and don't prop them up with pillows or blankets.

Is there a vaccine against RSV infection?

No. There is currently no vaccine for RSV.

Some immunity to RSV develops over the first couple of years of life, but you are never completely protected against RSV. You can have RSV more than once but symptoms are usually milder after the first time.

How can I prevent my child getting RSV infection?

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding your baby protects them from getting RSV infection by boosting their infection-fighting (immune) system. Breastfeeding beyond 4 months of age offers the best protection.

Smoke-free environment

Make sure your child's environment is smoke-free. If you want to give up smoking:

  • call the free Quitline Me Mutu on 0800 778 778 or text 4006
  • check out the website Quitline
  • ask your health professional

Immunisation

Make sure your child is up to date with all their immunisations. There is currently no vaccine for RSV but immunisation can prevent bacterial infections following RSV infection.

The National Immunisation Schedule is the series of immunisations that are free for babies, children and teens (and adults). The Schedule lists the immunisations and the age your child can have them.

As well as the immunisations on the Schedule, your child can have immunisation against the flu for free if:

  • they are 4 years of age or younger and
  • have been in hospital for a respiratory illness (including measles) or have already had serious respiratory illness  

Immunisation schedule poster

Te whakatō i te kano ārai mate – te ārai tino pai

A warm house

Keeping the house warm and well-insulated will also decrease your baby's risk of developing RSV infection.

Read about keeping your home warm and dry

Stay away from people with coughs and colds

It is sensible to keep young babies away from people who have colds and coughs.

Wash hands and cover coughs and sneezes

Make sure everyone in your family washes their hands regularly and thoroughly and dries them well, including (but not only) before preparing food and eating. This can reduce the spread of infection.

Cough or sneeze into your elbow - coughing or sneezing into your elbow catches the droplets and stops them getting onto your hands. That means you won't spread the virus to other people and make them sick too. You can also cough or sneeze into tissues. Put any used tissues in the bin or a bag immediately. Then wash your hands thoroughly. Then dry.

Watch a video about basic measures to protect against respiratory infections such as COVID-19 and RSV

This World Health Organisation video about basic measures to protect yourself and everyone else against COVID-19 is also relevant for protecting yourself against a respiratory infection like RSV.

References

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection Health Navigator. 

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) Ministry of Health.

Respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USA.

Understanding respiratory syncytial virus Asthma + Respiratory Foundation, NZ.

 

This page last reviewed 09 July 2021.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it