Respiratory syncytial virus is a highly contagious infection that usually affects very young children, often under the age of 5. Most cases of this illness, commonly referred to as RSV, occur during the fall and winter months. The RSV virus can result in symptoms such as a cough and a fever, and sometimes wheezing; these symptoms tend to develop in stages. Some of the youngest children who get RSV show decreased appetite or poor feeding, irritability, and breathing difficulties. This virus is most often treated at home, though more severe cases can lead to hospitalization.


RSV infections in the US have surged this past year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, with many cases cropping up even in the summer months of 2021. Because RSV manifests similarly to the COVID-19 viral infection at first, medical professionals have diagnosed the illness often after COVID-19 has been ruled out. Though RSV and COVID-19 have similar basic symptoms, COVID-19 can result in others as well (e.g., loss of taste or smell, diarrhea, etc.); these illnesses can be mistaken for one another until a healthcare provider makes a proper medical evaluation.


The RSV virus and the COVID-19 virus are spread similarly. The main mechanism of both viruses spreading is through droplets in the air (or via solid surfaces that have the germs of an infected person on them), typically after someone with the virus coughs or sneezes. An individual with either virus is generally contagious for several days in most cases, though some people can transmit the virus to others for longer, even after symptoms have cleared up. 


Because RSV and COVID-19 are both caused by viruses, neither of these infections can be treated with an antibiotic. (Antibiotics are only useful for treating bacterial infections.) Treatment for these illnesses is usually basic at-home care that includes ensuring the intake of fluids, resting, and administering over-the-counter pain or fever reducers. If symptoms seem to be bad enough to warrant medical care, it is important to make an appointment with your doctor or visit an urgent care center or emergency room as required.


While COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus, RSV is caused by viruses in the family of paramyxoviruses. There are tests for RSV: an antigen-based test or a PCR test can be done to determine whether or not the illness is present. There are similar tests used for COVID-19 evaluation. When parents suspect their child has a virus, they should request both an RSV test and a COVID-19 test from their child’s doctor. 

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