RSV: What it is and how to prevent it

Salonaz Sami, Wednesday 23 Nov 2022

The spread of the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) among children has caused panic among parents in the past few weeks. RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms.

Photo courtesy of children's health Queensland


RSV targets the lower respiratory tract, especially the small air pathways, and it is one of the most common causes of childhood illness.

For most healthy children and adults, RSV would be like a common cold with the exact same symptoms, and it would last from four days to a week.

However, "for some, like premature infants, babies younger than eight months, people above the age of 65 and people with compromised immune systems, it can be more serious," explained Hossam Ashour, consultant of paediatrics and neonatology at Galaa Teaching Hospital.

“RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis or the inflammation of the small airways in the lung, as well as pneumonia, or the infection of the lungs, in children under the age of two," explained Ashour.

Patients infected with RSV usually start showing symptoms within 4-6 days. The symptoms are cold-like and include coughing, sneezing, fever, runny nose, chest whizzing, and a noticeable decrease in appetite.

“This year has seen an increase in the rate of RSV infections," explained Hossam Abdel-Ghaffar, spokesman of the Ministry of Health, in a phone-in with DMC satellite channel. Some 98 per cent of RSV cases show mild or no symptoms at all, he added, noting that "these cases don't need treatment and their condition improves naturally." 

“In the majority of cases, patients don't need to be hospitalised and the symptoms disappear on their own," said Ashour. However, in some cases, when there is trouble breathing or fear of dehydration, hospitalisation is necessary. "Because in severe cases, a person infected with RSV may require additional oxygen or IV fluids," he added.

RSV is a seasonal illness like the Influenza virus which causes the flu, according to Ashour. Its circulation usually starts during fall and peaks in the winter. Moreover, the reason RSV is spreading nowadays, especially among students in schools and universities, is because it can simply survive for several hours on hard surfaces.

“An infected person would cough or sneeze near a hard surface like a desk or a doorknob and then a healthy person would, unknowingly, touch that surface which has the virus on it and then touch their face before washing their hands," Ashour explained.

“People infected with RSV are generally contagious for 4-14 days," explained immunologist Samah El-Wakil. However, when it comes to patients with weak immune systems, that period extends for as long as four weeks. "Children and older people with certain medical conditions could continue to spread the virus even when they are not showing any symptoms," El-Wakil added.

RSV typically lives on soft surfaces, like hands and tissues for shorter amounts of time, "so constantly washing your hands with soap is essential to minimise your chances of getting infected," advised Ashour. Avoiding close contact with others, especially people who are infected, also helps.

“Always try to keep frequently touched surfaces and objects clean and sanitised and try as much as possible to avoid close contact, like shaking hands, hugging, and kissing with others," El-Wakil said. "Make sure to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze with a tissue or your elbow sleeve, but not your hand," she added.

There is no specific treatment for RSV, but medications are available to manage its symptoms. "You can manage the fever and pain with fever reducers and pain killers," said Ashour.

However, antibiotics aren't used to treat a viral infection such as RSV, according to Ashour, and should only be prescribed if medical tests show that one has bacterial pneumonia or another infection. Meanwhile, the most important thing in the treatment process, according to El-Wakil, is to rest.

"Make sure to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and rest for as long as you can," she said.

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