Respiratory syncytial virus (rsv)

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common cause of respiratory illness. RSV is often the cause of the ‘common cold’.

RSV can affect people of all ages. Repeated RSV infection is common in children. Children under 3 years of age and older adults who have health problems involving the heart, lungs or immune system are at risk of serious illness and may need to be admitted to hospital. Babies, especially those under 6 months of age, can develop chest infections such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. RSV can cause swelling and mucus to build up in their small airways, making it harder to breathe.

RSV is highly infectious. Outbreaks of acute respiratory illness in settings such as early childhood education and care services and residential care facilities can be from RSV infection.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms usually begin between 3 and 10 days after contact with RSV and can include:

  • runny nose
  • cough
  • wheezing (noisy breathing)
  • fever
  • decreased appetite.

Symptoms in infants and babies can include:

  • irritability or tiredness
  • refusal to breast or bottle feed
  • weight loss
  • working hard to breathe or fast breathing.

Cough associated with RSV can last up to 4 weeks and worsen asthma symptoms.


A diagnosis of RSV can be made by a doctor based on signs and symptoms. A swab collected from the nose and throat may be taken to confirm infection.


Most cases of RSV can be managed at home with rest and drinking fluids. Over-the-counter medication can help to relieve symptoms, including to lower a high temperature or to reduce discomfort (take as directed in the product information). Seek medical advice if you’re concerned about your child’s breathing.

RSV is not able to be treated with antibiotics as they don’t work against viruses.

Infants and children may be admitted to hospital for monitoring, extra fluids and oxygen.

There is no vaccine for RSV. Researchers are currently working on the development of an RSV vaccine.


RSV is very infectious and is easily spread from person to person by respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. Contact with unwashed hands and contaminated objects or surfaces can also spread the virus.

The virus can survive outside of the body for about 4 to 7 hours but is easily killed by simple cleaning and disinfecting.


RSV infection can be prevented by:

  • washing your hands and children’s hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub
  • cleaning and disinfection of regularly touched surfaces, toys and objects such as door handles
  • teaching children to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow, then throwing away used tissues in the bin and washing their hands
  • keeping unwell children away from newborn babies, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems.

Health outcome

Most RSV infections cause a mild cold-like illness and symptoms usually go away after 2 weeks. Some children and babies, especially those under the age of 6 months, may need to stay in hospital.

RSV is very infectious. Children must not attend school or childcare settings with symptoms of RSV or an acute respiratory illness to prevent the spread of infection. Children may return once their symptoms have stopped.

Other resources

Children’s Health Queensland RSV fact sheet


Help and assistance:

For further assistance, please contact your local doctor, community health centre, nearest public health unit or contact 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84).


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2020. ‘Respiratory Syncytial Virus

National Health Service 2018. ‘Bronchiolitis’