RSV Unmasked: The Silent Global Epidemic

Prevalence of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory Syncytial Virus is one of the most common respiratory viruses worldwide. RSV infections often occur in epidemics. A study conducted in Sri Lanka found that 28% of children under 5 years of age suffered from RSV-associated lung infection. In fact, RSV infects 90% of children in the first 2 years of life.

Every year, RSV causes approximately 33 million respiratory illnesses, three million hospitalizations, and 199,000 childhood deaths worldwide.

How does RSV Spread?

RSV infection shows a typical seasonal trend. RSV outbreaks tend to peak during the fall and winter months. The cold weather and increased indoor crowding create an ideal environment for RSV transmission. Respiratory Syncytial Virus spreads via:

  • Droplets released on coughing and sneezing
  • Direct contact with infected individuals e.g. shaking hands or kissing
  • Touching contaminated surfaces

RSV can survive on hard surfaces such as door handles for many hours. Therefore, it’s important to clean them regularly. Infected persons may continue to spread the virus for 3 to 8 days while infants and people with decreased immunity may remain contagious for up to 4 weeks.

Symptoms of RSV infection

Respiratory Syncytial Virus causes a range of symptoms depending on the age and health status of the person. Some common symptoms of RSV are:

  • Runny nose
  • Decreased appetite
  • Coughing (A barking or wheezing cough is one of the first signs of a serious illness)
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Mild headache
  • Sore throat

It is important to recognize the symptoms of RSV infection in infants and young children to prevent serious infection. Infants with severe RSV infection may have:

  • Shallow, rapid breathing
  • Nasal flaring (Nostrils spread out with every breath)
  • Cyanosis (Mouth, lips, and fingernails turn blue due to lack of oxygen)
  • Poor feeding
  • Unusual tiredness
  • High fever

Recognizing these symptoms earlier and seeking help from health professionals may help reduce the spread of RSV infection.

High-Risk Groups for RSV Infection

Although RSV affects people from all age groups some are particularly susceptible to it. RSV causes mild cold-like symptoms in older children and young adults but it may cause severe infections and even death in some high-risk groups. Every year in the United States, RSV causes 6,000-10,000 deaths in adults 65 years and older and 100-300 deaths in children younger than 5 years old.

People at high risk from an RSV infection include:

  • Infants
  • Unusual tiredness
  • Premature Babies
  • Children with Neuromuscular Disorders
  • Older Adults over 65 years old
  • People with Chronic Heart or Lung Disease
  • Immunocompromised Individuals

Complications of RSV Infection

Respiratory Syncytial Virus poses a significant health concern due to its potential to cause severe respiratory illness and complications. High-risk groups are more likely to develop complications as a result of RSV infection. Some of the potential complications associated with RSV infection are:

  • Bronchiolitis
  • Pneumonia (RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children (<1 year of age) in the US)
  • Hospitalization especially in older adults and infants younger than 6 months of age
  • Acute respiratory failure
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Chronic respiratory disease
  • Middle ear infection
  • Asthma (Increased risk in children with severe RSV infection)
  • Repeated infections

Early detection and management of RSV infections are essential to prevent severe outcomes and complications.

How to Prevent RSV infection?

Prevention is the most effective strategy against RSV infection. The following preventive measures can help reduce the risk of transmission:

  • Use a tissue paper while coughing or sneezing
  • Wash hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when possible
  • Clean contaminated surfaces e.g. door knobs, furniture, and toys regularly
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose, or mouth with unclean hands
  • Avoid close contact with infected people e.g. shaking hands, kissing, and sharing utensils
  • Wear a face mask when sick. Mask is not recommended for children under 2 years old
  • Vitamin D supplementation in pregnant women (Vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of RSV infection in infants)

Vaccine for Respiratory Syncytial Virus

In June 2023, the CDC recommended ABRYSVO vaccine for adults 60 years or older. It is given as a single dose. The best time to get the vaccine is in the late summer and early fall to prevent RSV infection. ABRYSVO is also approved for use in pregnant women. It is given as a single dose between 32 to 36 weeks of pregnancy.


Respiratory Syncytial Virus is a highly infectious virus that infects people from all age groups. It may cause severe infection, particularly in infants, immunocompromised adults, and the elderly. Therefore, it is essential to recognize the symptoms of RSV infection early to reduce its transmission. RSV spreads via respiratory droplets, direct contact with infected individuals, and touching contaminated surfaces. There is no specific treatment available to eradicate RSV infection. Supportive care is the mainstay of treatment. By practicing preventive measures such as hand washing, social distancing, and cleaning contaminated surfaces, we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from this disease.


 Written for TouchBio by: Dr. Danial A 


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