Health conditions

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

  • Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common, highly infectious virus that affects the respiratory system (lungs and breathing passages).
  • Common symptoms include fever, runny nose, cough, wheeze and headache.
  • RSV infections are usually mild but can cause more serious illnesses, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia, in children and adults.
  • Good hand and personal hygiene are the best ways of preventing spread of RSV.
What is RSV?
RSV is a virus that usually causes a mild respiratory infection in children and adults. It is a common cause of coughs and colds during the winter months.
How do you get RSV?

RSV is very contagious and spreads easily.

RSV spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks sending respiratory droplets containing the virus into the air. These droplets can end up in other people’s eyes, nose or mouths where they can cause infection. The droplets can also land on objects, such as door handles, surfaces or toys, where other people can touch them and then transfer the virus to their eyes nose or mouths.

It can also spread through hand-to-hand contact with an infected person.

What are the signs and symptoms of RSV?

RSV infections are usually mild.

Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • runny nose
  • headache
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • wheezing.

Ear infections can also occur.

In infants and children, RSV infection may cause difficulty breathing, and the infection may progress to bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

RSV can be diagnosed by a PCR test (nose or throat swab) or a blood test.

How do you treat RSV?

Most RSV infections are mild. They can be treated with rest, drinking lots of water and taking simple over the counter pain medication, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, if needed.

People with more serious RSV infections may require hospitalisation for intravenous hydration (water through your veins) and/or oxygen.

Antibiotics will not help fight the RSV infection, unless there is a secondary bacterial infection present.

Who is most at risk of RSV?

RSV infections can affect anyone and are usually mild.

Babies, infants and children with pre-existing lung conditions are at higher risk of becoming unwell with RSV infections and may require admission to hospital. RSV infections can also trigger symptoms in children with asthma.

Older adults who are immunocompromised (weakened immune systems), or have heart or lung conditions, are also at higher risk of becoming unwell.

How can we prevent the spread of RSV?

RSV infections can be prevented by:

  • Practicing good hand hygiene by regularly washing your hands with soap and water or using hand sanitiser
  • Practicing good personal hygiene which includes covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, wearing a mask when leaving the home and avoiding close contact with others.
  • Keeping infected people away from others until they recover, particularly those at higher risk (babies, infants, children and older adults)
  • Cleaning surfaces and items that may be contaminated with a detergent that can kill viruses.
Is there a vaccine to protect against RSV?

There is no vaccine for RSV.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222
  • For emergency or life-threatening conditions, visit an emergency department or dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance

Last reviewed: 02-09-2022

Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.