RSV Virus Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Prevention

During early infancy, viruses such as the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are known to cause bronchiolitis — a condition with nearly identical symptoms to asthma, such as wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and cough.

Boy with inhalation mask
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Does RSV Virus Lead to Asthma?

Following RSV infection, a number of infants are known to develop recurrent wheezing and asthma symptoms. In fact, some epidemiological studies have shown that as many as 40% of infants who require hospitalization from RSV will develop these concerns.

Still, while infants who are hospitalized with RSV bronchiolitis are more likely to have asthma later on, most of us have had RSV infection at some time and do not have asthma. It remains unclear if RSV infection early on in life causes asthma or if infants who are genetically destined to have asthma are simply the ones to wheeze and get ill enough to be hospitalized if infected.

Child at Risk for the RSV Virus

RSV infection occurs most commonly in late fall and early spring, and most children have been exposed to it by age 2. A person can come into contact with RSV by touching people or objects where the virus is present. RSV can live for more than an hour on the hands or face (as may be the case after shaking hands or kissing) and up to 5 hours on a countertop and other objects.

These facts apply to everyone, but some more specific risk factors for contracting RSV include:

  • Attendance at daycare
  • Secondhand tobacco smoke exposure
  • Having school-age brothers or sisters
  • Living in crowded conditions

When to Call the Doctor About RSV

Worrisome symptoms of an RSV infection are similar to those that come along with asthma. All of the following symptoms are indications that you or your child needs to seek emergency care:

  • Wheezing that occurs while breathing both in and out
  • Coughing that has become continuous
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Breathing very fast
  • Retractions (the skin is pulled back with breath)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Becoming pale
  • Becoming anxious
  • Blue lips or fingernails called cyanosis

Both parents and physicians can have a difficult time differentiating RSV infection from asthma, particularly if the child has never wheezed before.

To determine if your child's symptoms are indeed due to RSV, a physician will take nasal secretion samples for an RSV test.

How Can I Help Prevent RSV?

The single best way to prevent RSV infection is good hand washing. Not only do you need to wash your hands, but you need to insist that anyone handling your baby does as well.

Additionally, keep your young infants away from people that have colds, respiratory tract infections, or fever. While you may want to show off your young baby and other young children will be very interested, RSV is very common in young children and is easily spread from child to child.

Finally, do not smoke or let others smoke around your child — a good practice for many other reasons, too.

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  • Medline Plus. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Asthma: The Hygiene Hypothesis