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What Parents Need to Know About RSV (Respiratory Syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) Virus)

Posted 28 OCTOBER 2022

Nearly all children are exposed to RSV by the time they are 2 years old. Most of the time, RSV will cause a mild, cold-like illness that resolves within 7-14 days. However, some children have a higher risk of severe or longer illness, including:

  • Premature infants
  • Infants younger than 6 months
  • Infants weighing less than 11 pounds
  • Children with congenital heart disease (especially cyanotic heart disease)
  • Children with chronic lung disease
  • Children with neuromuscular disorders impacting the ability to clear mucous secretions
  • Children with compromised immune symptoms

How Does RSV Spread?

RSV spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land on surfaces such as furniture and doorknobs. Touching these surfaces then touching your face without first washing your hands can transmit the virus.

How Can I Reduce My Child’s Risk of Getting Sick?

The best way to prevent the spread of germs is to limit potential exposure by:

  • Keeping babies under 4 months old at home, and limiting their exposure to visitors
  • Teaching children to cover their mouths and noses when sneezing and coughing, and to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Ensuring children frequently wash their hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Encouraging children to wear masks indoors and in high-risk settings such as large gatherings

What are the Symptoms of RSV?

Symptoms of RSV may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decreased appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

Symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In infants less than 6 months old, RSV symptoms may include:

  • Irritability
  • Decreased activity
  • Breathing difficulties

How Can I Care for My Child at Home?

Children with mild RSV infections can be managed at home with supportive care including:

  • Saline (salt water) sprays
  • Suctions bulbs/aspirators
  • Cool mist humidifiers

For fever or pain, children 2 months and older can be given acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Fever-reducing medications should NOT be given to babies less than 2 months old without guidance from a health care provider.

Should I Take My Child to See the Doctor?

Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two, and do not require a doctor visit. 
To help you make an informed decision about whether your child should be seen by a health care provider, please contact the Military Health System (MHS) Nurse Advice Line, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You’ll be able to speak to a registered nurse who can provide recommendations for the most appropriate level of care and even help find an urgent care or emergency care facility, if needed.

Children who are at high-risk for developing respiratory complications or have prolonged or worsening symptoms should be evaluated by a health care provider. High-risk conditions include asthma and other lung conditions, weakened immune system, babies with certain heart defects, and infants born prematurely (especially before 29 weeks). Additionally, your child should go to their doctor if exhibiting any of the following:

  • Fever lasting more than five days
  • Worsening cough
  • Vomiting and poor appetite

When Should I Take My Child to the ER?

This can be a difficult and stressful decision. The Military Health System (MHS) Nurse Advice Line, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, can help you decide (see contact information above). Please note, most urgent care centers and emergency rooms are extremely busy with long wait times. However, you should seek emergency care if your child exhibits the following symptoms:

  • Rapid/fast breathing
  • Difficulty breathing (grunting with breathing, pain with inhaling)
  • Persistent vomiting and not drinking any fluids
  • Dehydration (no tears with crying, dry lips and mouth, no urination in more than 8 hours, less than 3 wet diapers in 24 hours)
  • Abnormal or altered behavior
  • Poor skin color (pale or bluish skin color)
  • Severe pain

Learn more about RSV at:

Don't forget to keep your family's information up-to-date in DEERS.