Recognizing the signs and symptoms of RSV

Respiratory Syncytial Virus detections are on the rise, as well as RSV associated emergency visits and hospitalizations.
Published: Nov. 2, 2022 at 9:09 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Around the country, hospitals are seeing an increase in hospitalizations for those diagnosed with respiratory illnesses.

One respiratory illness in particular, that is showing increasing numbers by national trends, is Respiratory Syncytial (sin-SISH-Uhl) Virus (RSV), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Community outbreaks of respiratory illnesses and infections typically occur in late fall, winter, and early spring.

So, is this a seasonal trend or are there other factors to the rise in RSV infections?

Dr. Anne Hanley, who works in the Pediatrics Department at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, explains RSV is a common respiratory virus that can cause mild, cold-like symptoms.

“It’s [RSV] a virus that is throughout our community,” said Hanley. “It’s something that we pick up just being out in the world.”

Although for some, RSV can lead to serious or worsening conditions such as Bronchiolitis and Pneumonia.

Those most at risk are infants, children under 2, and older adults.

“It can affect all of us, but it primarily affects kids under the age of 2,” she explains. Adding it does happen to older adults but that is not her expertise. “In terms of what we do, we don’t have an antibiotic, but when kids need support, we can support them through the illness.”

She went on to say the vast majority of people who get RSV do okay at home, but some require additional care, such as oxygen supplementation for those with respiratory distress or trouble breathing.

Additionally, she said, “Kids who have difficulty breathing can have problems with dehydration, and they have trouble taking in the nutrition they need to maintain the usual functioning of the body. So if that’s the case we can give them fluids from an IV or support them nutritionally.”

But why are RSV and other viral infections on the rise? Dr. Hanley says there are several theories as to why that is.

“RSV is something that we have seen for a long time. All of us who have gone through any pediatric training in the medical field are very familiar with it,” she explains. “But we had a little bit of a hiatus from it, kind of, the two winters after COVID hit between springtime of 2020 to now.”

She says during that time families and kids were masking, and doing less social interaction, and because of that they were not passing viruses back and forth so much. “Now we are suddenly back to what we call normal. Many of us are back into post-COVID normal, and we are passing viruses back a lot more.”

Another theory researchers are looking into is why RSV is making a big comeback with younger patients.

“Since we have had less exposure in the last two years, maybe we have less immunity to some of these viral infections,” said Hanley. “Especially the kiddos who would have had an RSV infection in the first couple years of life haven’t seen RSV at all so they don’t have the same antibody response.”

There are ways to test whether or not an infection is RSV or another type of respiratory illness.

“When a patient comes into the hospital setting or the clinic setting, we can do a test to identify whether it is RSV or whether it is a different virus, or if it is none of those viruses,” she said. “But that doesn’t necessarily change our management of that patient at that time.”

But when do you know to take your child in for treatment? Dr. Hanely says this can be a difficult question to answer, but most parents know when something is not right with their child.

“The appropriate time really in my opinion is when you are scared,” she answers. “When a parent is scared and their kid is in front of them and they feel like their kid is having difficulty breathing, it is never wrong to bring your child into be assessed.”

Hanley says if your child has a bluish color around their lips it could be a sign of low oxygen levels. Also, look for signs of belly breathing or intercostal retractions.

“When you see the muscles between the ribs moving, or if they are kind of head-bobbing, or having to use their head to breathe, those are all signs they could have some respiratory distress and that would be concerning,” said Hanley.

According to the CDC, “People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within 4 to 6 days after getting infected. Symptoms of RSV infection usually include

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties.”

Hanley adds there are ways to protect yourself and children who may be prone to infection. A way to reduce the transmission of any respiratory infection can be done by washing your hands.

If you are in a public place wearing a mask can also help reduce the transmission of viral infections. “For those that are symptomatic, who may have any upper respiratory infection, I would say if you are going to be in a public place or be around other people, just pop on a mask and that can help the people you are around,” said Hanley.

She said if your kids have symptoms, ask them to wear a mask as well. And while there is no vaccine for RSV, there are vaccines available for COVID and Flu, and that can help reduce the risk of a co-infection. “The symptoms can be less severe if we can vaccinate against the other two things,” she added.

For more information on Respiratory Syncytial Virus visit:

RSV in Infants and Young Children

Alaska Division of Health: Respiratory Syncytial Virus RSV