For five months, from the fall through spring each year, a respiratory virus called RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) flourishes. This infection can affect anyone, but infants are at greatest risk. RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and bronchiolitis (infection of the small airways of the lungs) in infants and children.

RSV, like all respiratory viruses, lives in the mucus that lines the respiratory tract: the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat and all the airways of the lungs. When a person infected with RSV coughs, sneezes or blows his nose, RSV in the mucus is spread out into the environment. RSV can survive on objects - such as doorknobs and countertops - for up to seven hours.

Let's say you have a co-worker who is infected with RSV. Since she's an adult, she probably isn't very sick at all and has come to work. She sneezes or coughs into her hands as she is working at a computer. Then you come along a couple of hours later and type on the same computer keyboard she was using. You have an itch, and so you rub your nose or eyes. Then you go home and play with your baby without washing your hands first. You have just infected yourself and your baby with RSV.

You can also catch RSV by inhaling the virus if someone sneezes or coughs near you. Sharing contaminated eating utensils, drinking out of the same cup, kissing or other close contact with an infected person also can pass the virus.

In older children and adults, RSV is like any other cold virus, with mild symptoms - runny nose, sore throat, a little cough and fatigue - lasting a few days.

In infants and children, RSV may start out like a mild cold, but the virus can move down the respiratory tract into the lungs and cause more severe symptoms.

Infants and children with any of the following symptoms need to see a health care provider right away:

• difficulty breathing

• rapid breathing

• wheezing

• severe cough

• retraction of chest muscles or flaring of the nostrils with each breath

• lips, skin or fingernails turning blue or gray (this is a sign that the child is not getting enough oxygen)

• decrease in alertness

Infants less than 3 months old with RSV are at greatest risk as they may stop breathing. All infants up to 6 months old are at risk for pneumonia and bronchiolitis due to RSV. They may need hospitalization and extra oxygen during the worst phase of the illness. More than 80,000 children are hospitalized due to RSV each year; about 2 percent die of the infection.

Also, any child with lung, heart or immune system problems is at risk of complications from RSV. Other children at risk include:

• premature infants

• infants who are not breastfed

• infants who are exposed to secondhand smoke

• infants who have older sibling or who live in a crowded home

• infants who attend day care

RSV can also be very serious in adults over age 65, and has recently been found to be a significant cause of death for the elderly.

Health care providers may do a nasal swab test for RSV. For seriously ill patients, a chest X-ray may be needed. Blood oxygen levels can be measured with a sensor called a pulse oximeter placed on the fingertip.

Treatment for severe RSV infections involves giving oxygen via a mask. Sometimes, intravenous fluids and bronchodilator medicines to open up the airways are given. Antibiotics are not useful against RSV, but an antiviral medicine called ribavirin may be used for high-risk patients.

Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send ideas to You can find more local health news and information in the Health section at

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