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. 


Mother holding a coughing baby


Key points 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 tamariki (children) don't have serious problems
  • in some pēpi (babies) and young tamariki, the virus can cause serious illness, including bronchiolitis and pneumonia
  • these pēpi and young tamariki may need to go to hospital
  • RSV spreads very easily - wash hands regularly and stay away from people who have coughs and colds
  • if your baby or child has any new respiratory symptoms, keep them away from daycare or school until they no longer have symptoms
  • for free health advice 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 droplets on it.

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

See the KidsHealth page on bronchiolitis to learn more

See the KidsHealth page on pneumonia to learn more

Which children are most at risk of RSV infection?

Those at highest risk of getting very sick include:

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

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

A paediatrician may talk with you about a medicine to prevent serious illness caused by RSV in high-risk pēpi. 

Read about RSV passive immunisation for high-risk babies

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?

Phone Healthline (for free) on 0800 611 116 or your GP clinic as soon as possible for advice. Make sure to phone your GP clinic before visiting.

If your child has any new respiratory symptoms, keep them home from childcare centres or school. Keep them home until they no longer have symptoms.

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

When do I need to see a health professional?

You should see a health professional urgently if your baby or young child:

  • is under 3 months old
  • is breathing fast, has noisy breathing or is having to use extra effort to breathe
  • looks pale or 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 health professional if you are worried about your baby or young child.

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

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:

  • is blue around the mouth
  • has severe difficulty breathing
  • is becoming very sleepy and hard to wake up
  • is very pale
  • is floppy
  • has irregular breathing or pauses in breathing

What is the treatment for RSV infection?

Most tamariki get better by themselves

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

Pēpi and young tamariki with more serious illness may need to go to hospital

Sometimes, pēpi and young tamariki 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 tamariki will be able to recover from this illness at home.

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.

Here are some suggestions for looking after your child: 

  • offer smaller feeds more often - pēpi with RSV infection may not be able to feed for as long as usual
  • 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)
  • keep your baby or child away from other tamariki - and keep them home from daycare and school to stop RSV spreading
  • 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?

There is currently no RSV vaccine available for tamariki in Aotearoa New Zealand. (There is work happening on developing RSV vaccines for tamariki). 

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 from getting RSV?


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


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

The National Immunisation Schedule is a series of immunisations that are free for pēpi, tamariki and rangatahi (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.

Find out more on the KidsHealth flu immunisation page.

The resource below is also available in Cook Islands Māori, Samoan and Tongan at the HealthEd website.

Immunisation schedule poster

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

Find out what immunisations your child needs, and when, at the Immunise website.

You can create a chart for your pēpi at the Immunise website. By putting in your child's birthday, it will show you the immunisations your pēpi needs and when they should have them.

The chart below is just an example - create one for your pēpi

Image of personalised childhood immunisation chart

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 pēpi away from people with colds and coughs.

Wash hands and cover coughs and sneezes

Use hand sanitiser or encourage frequent hand washing with soap and water. 

Teach your child to cough into their elbow to avoid getting germs on their hands. Teach them to sneeze into a tissue and throw it away as soon as possible. Remind them to sanitise or wash their hands after sneezing, coughing and blowing their nose. 

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.


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection Health Navigator. 

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