Respiratory Virus Far More Common Than Thought

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The highly contagious respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can cause wheezing and pneumonia in children, is far more common than previously believed, according to a new study.

RSV sends 2.1 million kids under age 5 to the doctor or hospital each year, according to researchers, who looked at data for more than 5,000 youngsters. They estimate that RSV infection is the cause of 1 in every 13 outpatient visits to doctors each year by children under age 5, and 1 in 38 emergency department visits.

Previously, experts believed that RSV didn't typically cause many problems in children older than 1 year, but this study shows that each year a significant number of older kids are still being hospitalized due to RSV infection.

More About RSV

RSV is highly contagious and can be spread through droplets containing the virus when someone coughs or sneezes. The virus also can live on surfaces such as countertops or doorknobs, and on hands and clothing. It's easily spread when a person touches an object or surface contaminated with the virus.

In adults, RSV may only produce symptoms of a common cold, but in kids can lead to more serious illnesses. Infection can spread rapidly through schools and childcare centers. Infants often get it when older kids carry the virus home from school and pass it to them. Almost all kids are infected with RSV at least once by the time they're 2 years old.

RSV outbreaks are most common in the winter months, and are the leading cause of wintertime hospital admissions of babies.

What This Means to You

Because RSV is easily spread through touching people or surfaces that are infected, frequent handwashing can go a long way toward preventing it from infecting a household. It's best to wash your hands after having any contact with someone who has any cold symptoms. And keep your school-age child with a cold away from younger siblings — particularly infants — until the symptoms pass.

Most cases of RSV are mild and require no specific treatment from doctors. In infants, however, an RSV infection can be more serious and may require hospitalization so that the baby can be watched closely, receive fluids, and, if necessary, be treated for breathing problems.

Be sure to call the doctor if your child might has any of these symptoms:

  • high fever with ill appearance
  • thick nasal discharge that is yellow, green, or gray
  • worsening cough or cough that produces yellow, green, or gray mucus
  • rapid breathing or working hard to breathe

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: February 2009

Source: "The Burden of Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection in Young Children," New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 2009.

Related Resources

OrganizationCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The mission of the CDC is to promote health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability. Call: (800) CDC-INFO
OrganizationAmerican Lung Association The mission of this group is to prevent lung disease and promote lung health. Contact the group at: American Lung Association
61 Broadway, 6th Floor
NY, NY 10006
(212) 315-8700
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.

Related Articles

Common Cold With kids getting up to eight colds a year, this contagious viral infection is the most common infectious disease in the United States and the top reason kids visit the doctor and miss school.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a major cause of respiratory illness in young children. Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of this contagious infection.
Croup Croup is characterized by a loud cough that resembles the barking of a seal, and difficulty breathing. Learn more about croup.
Lungs and Respiratory System By the time we're 70 years old, we will have taken at least 600 million breaths. All of this breathing couldn't happen without the respiratory system.

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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