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Published on Sep 6, 2023

Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

RSV: Understanding this Common Virus and its Impact on Babies and Children

What is RSV?

RSV (short for respiratory syncytial virus; “syncytial” is pronounced syn·cy·tial  [sin-sish-uhl]) is a common virus that can cause chest infection in babies, children and adults.1 RSV is highly contagious and activity tends to start around April to May, with the peak occurring during the winter months, although the timing may vary depending on where you live in Australia.2 The RSV season is usually a few weeks before the influenza season, however the timing has been less predictable following the COVID-19 pandemic.2 RSV outbreaks can be serious, causing a range of lung and airway illnesses that can vary from mild to severe, sometimes leading to hospitalisations.3 RSV causes thousands of hospitalisations among children each year.4

Who is At Risk?

Almost all children will have been infected with RSV before their second birthday.3
However, there is a higher risk for severe RSV infections in:3

  • Babies younger than 6 months (especially babies younger than 2 months)
  • Preterm babies
  • Young children with chronic medical conditions
Most babies who have to stay in hospital due to RSV infection are otherwise healthy babies who were born at term.3 It can be difficult to predict which babies and children will develop severe RSV. However, the highest rates of hospitalisation for RSV occur in babies less than 6 months old (especially younger than 2 months).5 It's important to be aware of the symptoms, as RSV can progress - and its course can be unpredictable.3
RSV SymptomsEarly symptoms of RSV may not be severe in babies and young children, but they can worsen within a few days.1

Your child may have the following symptoms:1
  • Runny nose
  • Decreased activity or sleepier than usual
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Cough
In your baby is under 6 months of age, the following symptoms may be seen:1
  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
Severity and Complications of RSVMost babies and children infected with RSV recover within 10 days.1 Children under 2 years are particularly susceptible to severe infections and hospitalisation, while babies under 6 months face an even higher risk of severe disease.6 RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis in babies and young children.5 Some babies and children experience complications due to their RSV infection (which can include bronchiolitis or pneumonia), and in some cases, may require hospitalisation.3How does RSV spread?RSV is a virus that spreads easily from person to person. It can be transmitted in 2 ways:1
  • Through droplets when someone coughs or sneezes
  • By touching things (like toys or surfaces that have the virus on them) and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
If your child has RSV, they can be contagious for about 3 to 8 days after their symptoms start.1
RSV Prevention and Treatment RSV is highly contagious, so it is important to take these preventive measures to reduce the risk of infection:3
  • Frequent handwashing
  • Avoiding close contact with sick people (e.g. keep infants at home from childcare)
  • Keeping infants away from crowded places during the peak RSV season
There is no specific treatment for RSV, but supportive care, such as ensuring proper hydration through smaller and more regular feeds, and providing relief for fever and congestion, can help manage the symptoms. In severe cases, hospitalisation may be required to monitor and provide additional medical support.1
  1. The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network. Fact sheets: Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) Accessed July 2023.
  2. Eden J-S, Sikazwe C, Xie R, et al. Off-season RSV epidemics in Australia after easing of COVID-19 restrictions. Nature Communications. 2022;13(2884):1-9.
  3. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Intensified circulation of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and associated hospital burden in the EU/EEA Accessed July 2023.
  4. Nazareno AL, Muscatello DJ, Turner RM, et al. Modelled estimates of hospitalisations attributable to respiratory syncytial virus and influenza in Australia, 2009–2017. Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses. 2022;16(6):1082-90. 
  5. Saravanos GL, Sheel M, Homaira N, et al. Respiratory syncytial virus-associated hospitalisations in Australia, 2006-2015. The Medical Journal of Australia. 2019;210(1):447-453.
  6. Saravanos GL, Hu N, Homaira N, et al. RSV Epidemiology in Australia Before and During COVID-19. Pediatrics. 2022;149(2):22-31.


RSV – Fast facts:


If you suspect your child may have RSV, seek medical attention for proper evaluation and care.

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