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What is RSV and why can it be dangerous for young children?

A young boy with RSV cleans his nose with a tissue

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common, highly infectious virus that can cause serious illness in children under the age of 12 months.

RSV is the most common cause of respiratory and breathing infections in children and can lead to bronchiolitis and pneumonia, and may trigger symptoms in children with asthma.

Easy to transmit, it often occurs in childcare settings. Most children will catch RSV at least once before they turn two.

In older children, it generally causes minor cold-like illness which is can be treated with plenty of rest and fluids, but it can cause serious illness in infants and younger children.

Like many other respiratory virus infections such as colds and flu, RSV most often occurs when the weather turns cooler, however it can occur all year round.

What are the symptoms?

If a child has RSV they can have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • a runny nose
  • cough
  • wheezing
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache.

Symptoms may last for up to 10 days.

A person with RSV is normally infectious from when they start to show symptoms to 7-10 days after symptoms develop.

Many symptoms of RSV are similar to COVID-19 symptoms and all Queenslanders are reminded to continue being cautious by practicing good hygiene and social distancing. Anyone experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms such as a runny nose, fever, cough or sore throat, should get tested and isolate until they receive their results, and their symptoms resolve.

It’s very important to make sure you stay home if you’re experiencing these symptoms to limit the spread of these viruses and protect the vulnerable such as newborn babies, and people with weakened immune systems.

It’s important not to send your child to day care or school if they are unwell, to protect the other children.

If you or your child are feeling very unwell or experiencing breathing difficulties, you should seek immediate medical attention.

How is RSV spread?

(The following information is courtesy of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne)

Children with RSV are usually able to pass the virus onto others (infectious) for eight days from the start of their symptoms. RSV is very contagious and can live on surfaces for several hours, and on unwashed hands for 30–60 minutes. RSV spreads quickly and easily among children through coughing and sneezing and sharing cups and other objects that have been in contact with the infected child's mouth, nose or eyes.

A person wearing orange and yellow rubber gloves cleans a red toy truck with wipes

It can be difficult to stop the spread of RSV, however, practising good hygiene will help avoid passing any virus onto others.

  • Don't allow children to share drinks, cutlery or toys (whenever possible) and ensure these items are cleaned thoroughly with soap and water between uses.
  • Encourage your child to cough and sneeze into a tissue, then throw the tissue away.
  • It is very important that you and/or your child wash their hands once they have blown their nose to stop the germs from spreading.
  • Wash your hands after having any contact with someone who has symptoms of a cold.

If your child has RSV (or cold-like symptoms), it is important to keep them away from newborn babies or people who are immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system).

A woman taking care of her little boy who is sick with RSV at home while on the phone to the doctor

Care at home

Most cases of RSV are mild and can be treated with rest at home. If your child has RSV:

  • Keep them home if they feel unwell. If they feel well and are not coughing and sneezing, they can continue with their normal activities (kindergarten, school etc.).
  • Encourage your child to drink small amounts of fluids more frequently. If an infant has RSV, give them small amounts of fluid (breastmilk, formula or water) regularly.
  • See the fact sheet Fever in children for advice on managing your child's fever if it is causing them discomfort.

When to see a doctor

Take your child to the GP if:

  • they have a high temperature (fever) and do not look well
  • their nose is filled with mucus and they are having difficulty feeding
  • the cough becomes worse, or your child starts coughing up mucus
  • your child is dehydrated
  • they are a baby and refusing to breast or bottle feed and are irritable.
Call an ambulance or go to your nearest hospital emergency department if your child is turning blue, having trouble breathing, or is breathing very quickly.

A little girl sick with RSV receiving oxygen in hospital through a mask

After seeing your child, the doctor may ask to review your child again the following day. Take them back sooner if your child:

  • is having more difficulty breathing or breathing faster
  • is looking more unwell
  • is not taking at least half of their normal fluids
  • has a cough that is getting worse.

More information

Last updated: 19 April 2021