Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection

RSV is a common cause of winter infections but some people can become seriously ill and need hospital care.

On this page, you can find the following information:

Key points about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection

  1. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is one of many viruses that cause infections of the respiratory tract – the parts of your body related to breathing.
  2. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.
  3. Most children and healthy adults, RSV symptoms are mild and similar to the common cold.
  4. However, in some people, the virus can cause serious illness including bronchiolitis and pneumonia (infection of your lung) and they may need hospital care.
  5. Babies and young children, anyone with a weakened immune system and older adults (65+) are at greatest risk of severe infection.
  6. There is no vaccine against RSV, but you can help prevent its spread by covering coughs and sneezes, hand washing and other hygiene measures.

What is RSV?

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 such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. The respiratory tract involves the parts of the body related to breathing like the nose, windpipe, air passages in the lungs, and the lungs.

RSV is highly contagious. RSV can spread easily from person to person through droplets from a sneeze or cough. People can be infected by touching their nose or eyes after touching a person with RSV or contaminated items.

Who is most at risk of RSV infection?

People of any age can get an RSV infection. Those at highest risk of getting seriously unwell include:

  • young babies
  • premature babies
  • anyone (babies, children and adults) with heart or chronic lung problems
  • anyone (babies, children and adults) with a compromised (weakened) immune system
  • babies and young children who are around people who smoke
  • older adults.

Why is RSV infection a concern in Aotearoa NZ? 

RSV infections in Aotearoa New Zealand generally occur during winter and spring. In the past few years, COVID-19-related restrictions resulted in a lower than usual number of RSV infections. We are likely to see more RSV infections with the lowering of COVID-19 restrictions.

Babies and young children

In Aotearoa New Zealand, RSV is usually the most common cause of hospitalisation for lower respiratory tract infections in babies and children under 2 years old. Hospital admissions for the flu occur less often.

Older Adults and adults with chronic medical conditions

When an adult gets a RSV infection, they typically have mild cold-like symptoms. But RSV can sometimes lead to serious conditions such as:

  • pneumonia (infection of the lungs)
  • more severe symptoms for people with asthma
  • more severe symptoms for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD
  • congestive heart failure.

Older adults who get very sick from RSV may need to be hospitalized. Some may even die. Older adults are at greater risk than young adults for serious complications from RSV because our immune systems weaken as we get older.

What are the symptoms of RSV infection?

The symptoms of RSV infection are the typical symptoms of a cold and COVID-19, such as:

  • a runny nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • fever (high temperature)
  • wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • not feeling like eating or, in babies, difficulty feeding due to breathlessness.

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

  • irritability
  • decreased activity
  • breathing difficulties.

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

COVID-19 pandemic

Both RSV and COVID-19 are respiratory conditions and have similar symptoms. If you have any respiratory symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, head cold or loss of smell, with or without fever, phone Healthline (for free) on 0800 611 116 or your doctor as soon as possible for advice. Make sure you phone your doctor and tell them about your symptoms before visiting.

How is RSV infection diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about:

  • your symptoms
  • whether other close contacts have similar symptoms
  • your home environment
  • how long you have been sick.

They will also do a clinical examination, and may take your temperature and do a throat swab. 

How is RSV infection treated?

Most RSV infections go away on their own in 1–2 weeks and there is no specific treatment.

Care at home involves relieving symptoms, such as: 

  • managing fever and pain with paracetamol
  • drinking enough fluids to prevent dehydration (loss of body fluids).

Talk to your healthcare provider before taking cold and cough medicines – especially for children as some medicines contain ingredients that are not good for them. Read more about cold and cough medicines for children and for adults and about preventing dehydration in unwell children.

Care in hospital can include extra oxygen to help with breathing and extra fluids if you are dehydrated.

Are there any medicines that protect against RSV infection?

Vaccination

There is currently no vaccine available for RSV. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday and immunity to RSV develops over the first couple of years of life. However, it is never fully complete, and tends to decline again with age. This means older adults can also be seriously affected with the virus.

Palivizumab

A medicine called palivizumab (pah-lih-VIH-zu-mahb) will be available from June 2022 for some infants and children who are at high risk of severe illness. Your doctor will let you know if your child is eligible to have palivizumab.

Palivizumab is used to prevent severe RSV illness – it is not used to treat RSV once someone already has the infection. Palivizumab is given by injection. The protection from palivizumab falls after each injection so to ensure adequate protection the injections are repeated once a month during the RSV season. Read more about palivizumab. 

When should I seek help for RSV infection?

Babies and young children

If your child has any new respiratory symptoms, keep your baby or child home from childcare centres or school. Phone Healthline (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.

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.

Dial 111 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.

Older children, adults and older adults

You should see your family doctor or go to an after-hours medical centre urgently if they develop fever and wheezing, or difficulty breathing including shortness of breath or rapid breathing (could be a sign of pneumonia or bronchiolitis).

How is RSV infection spread?

RSV can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, as the virus droplets get in your eyes, nose or mouth. You can also get it from direct contact with the virus, eg, from kissing the face of a child with RSV. If you touch a surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touch your face before washing your hands, you can also get the virus.

Children are often exposed to and infected with RSV outside their home, eg, from school or childcare centres. The virus can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables and cot rails. It usually lives on soft surfaces, such as tissues and hands, for less time.

Image credit: Canva

How can I reduce the chances of getting RSV infection?

Stay away from people with coughs and colds – it is sensible to keep away from people who have colds and coughs and those at most risk of RSV infection.

Parents of children at high risk for developing severe RSV disease should:

  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching their face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid sharing their drink containers and toothbrushes.
  • Limit the time they spend in childcare centres or other potentially contagious settings, especially during autumn, winter and spring. This may help prevent infection and spread of the virus during the RSV season.

Smoke-free environment – make sure your 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 for advice.

Vaccinations – make sure you are up to date with all vaccinations. There is currently no vaccine for RSV but other childhood vaccinations can prevent bacterial infections following 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.

A warm house – keeping the house warm and well-insulated will also decrease your risk of developing RSV infection.

How can I prevent the spread of RSV infection?

Diagram of how to prevent the spread of RSVLearn more

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection KidsHealth, NZ
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) Ministry of Health, NZ
Understanding respiratory syncytial virus Asthma + Respiratory Foundation, NZ

References

  1. Respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US 2020
  2. Understanding respiratory syncytial virus Asthma and Respiratory Foundation, NZ 2021
  3. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection KidsHealth, NZ 2021
  4. RSV in older adults and adults with chronic medical conditions Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US 2020
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Sandra Ponen, BPharm, MPH, Auckland Last reviewed: 24 May 2022