Girl sick with rsv

Frequently Asked Questions about RSV

Nov 04, 2022 Urgent Care Share:

Cold and flu season has arrived. Although it’s just the end of October, doctors are seeing more respiratory viruses earlier in the season.

RSV, one respiratory virus that circulates annually, has been in the news lately for spreading earlier and more aggressively than usual. Pediatric hospitals are seeing a surge in admissions, and some hospitals even report a shortage of beds due to rising cases of RSV.

RSV can be particularly risky for children under the age of five, but many adults haven’t even heard of this virus. Here are 10 things everyone should know about RSV.

What is RSV?

RSV, also known as respiratory syncytial virus, is a respiratory virus that shares symptoms with many other viruses that cause the common cold. Most RSV infections are mild, and symptoms of this virus include a runny nose, cough, fever, and sneezing.

RSV spreads through respiratory droplets, person-to-person contact, and surfaces -- just like many other respiratory viruses. You can get RSV by inhaling droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes nearby or kissing your toddler who's picked up the virus at preschool. Because RSV can live on surfaces for several hours, babies can also get RSV by putting their mouth on an infected surface such as a shared toy or high chair.

RSV is a very common virus, and almost every child has been infected with RSV by their second birthday.

Can adults get RSV?

Although most children have had RSV before their second birthday, RSV isn’t just a childhood disease. Adults and children of all ages can get RSV, and you can be infected with the virus more than once; in fact, it’s possible to get RSV twice in the same season.

Adults who are infected with RSV tend to have milder illnesses with fewer complications than small children. However, adults over the age of 65, have heart or lung conditions, or who have compromised immune systems can also experience complications. In fact, over 14,000 adults over the age of 65 die each year from complications due to RSV.1

How is RSV different from other viruses that cause colds?

All kinds of viruses cause colds and upper respiratory infections, but we don’t usually take the time to talk about them individually. RSV is distinct from these other viruses because it can so quickly move from an infection in your upper respiratory tract to your lower respiratory tract.

Most colds tend to stay as upper respiratory infections. Commonly known as a head cold, symptoms such as congestion, runny nose, headache, sore throat, and mild cough, tend to stay only above your chest in your upper respiratory tract. But RSV tends to start in your upper respiratory tract and then move relatively quickly to your lower respiratory tract (your chest), including your lungs and bronchial tubes.

Any time you have a cold, you should be on the lookout for symptoms of pneumonia and other secondary infections. You should be especially attentive to these symptoms if you are at risk for complications or have children under the age of 5.

What are the potential complications of RSV?

The most common complications from an RSV infection are bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Bronchiolitis most commonly affects children under the age of 5, while older children and adults are more likely to get pneumonia.

Bronchiolitis is an infection of the smaller airways (bronchioles) in the lungs. Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that is usually caused by RSV, but it can also be caused by other upper respiratory viruses such as the common cold or flu. As a result, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Bronchiolitis has similar symptoms to bronchitis and pneumonia, and it can cause wheezing and breathing difficulties in very small children.

Pneumonia is an infection of the air sacs in your lungs. When these air sacs become infected, they may become filled with fluid or pus. Pneumonia can affect children and adults of any age and is a potential complication of RSV. Symptoms of pneumonia include severe cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and fatigue.

If you or your child has symptoms of either bronchiolitis or pneumonia, seek medical care at an urgent care clinic or your primary care doctor.

How is RSV treated?

RSV treatment is consistent with treatment for other upper respiratory infections and colds, especially if your infection is mild. Patients with symptoms of RSV should rest, drink plenty of fluids, take over-the-counter fever reducers, and use a cool-mist humidifier at night. Other supportive treatments, including vitamins and supplements, may also help reduce the duration of your infection. Because RSV is a virus, antibiotics are not used to treat an RSV infection.

Do you need to get tested for RSV?

Most doctors don’t test for RSV at the first sign of symptoms. However, symptoms of RSV are consistent with COVID-19 and influenza, so you may want to get tested to make sure you're not sick with either of those viruses. Regardless of the cause of your symptoms, you should stay home until you are well. Rest is important for fighting infection, and there’s no need to power through your cold and put others (especially those with small children) at risk.

Why is RSV spreading more aggressively right now?

For the past two years, efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have also minimized the spread of other respiratory viruses. Because it’s been a few years since those viruses have circulated widely, we haven’t had the repeated exposure that primes our immune systems to fight them off. As a result, more people are getting sick this year with more severe versions of the viruses that circulate each year.

How do you prevent RSV?

RSV is a common, contagious illness and unfortunately, illnesses are just part of life. You cannot keep yourself or your child from ever getting RSV or other respiratory viruses. However, you can wash your hands frequently, stay away from others who are sick, and practice immune-boosting habits such as getting plenty of rest and exercise while reducing stress.

Is there a vaccine for RSV?

Scientists have been trying to develop an RSV vaccine for decades, but no RSV vaccine is currently available. However, there are a few effective RSV vaccines in late-stage clinical trials.

Palivizumab is a monoclonal antibody treatment that’s used to prevent severe disease from RSV in infants who are at high risk for complications, including those who are born premature or who have congenital heart disease. Palivizumab is not used to prevent RSV infection in adults.

When do you need to see a doctor for RSV?

While you don’t need to see a doctor for treatment at the first sign of RSV symptoms, it can be beneficial to test for COVID-19 and flu since the symptoms do overlap. But adults should see an urgent care doctor if they have:

  • Fever above 100.4 degrees for more than two days
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Dehydration

While RSV is generally a mild illness in adults, it can cause complications that need to be treated. Depending on the severity of your illness, you may need prescription anti-inflammatories or inhaled steroids to treat your symptoms.

MedHelp urgent care clinics are open seven days a week with extended hours on weekdays if you need urgent medical care for RSV or other upper respiratory illnesses. Each of our urgent care clinics is equipped with digital x-ray, an in-house lab for diagnostics, and compassionate providers to care for you when you're sick.

Feeling under the weather?

We can help get you back on your feet. MedHelp urgent care clinics in Birmingham are open 7 days a week with extended hours on weekdays. 


1 Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Accessed 20 October 2022.