What is a Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

D. Jeffress

Respiratory syncytial virus is a very common pathogen that causes lung infections. It is especially prevalent among infants, young children, elderly people, and adults who have weakened immune systems. Respiratory syncytial virus is highly contagious, and a person can acquire it simply by being in close contact with afflicted people. Infections are usually mild in children and adults, causing fever, coughing, and congestion that persist for less than three weeks. In infants, however, the virus can cause life-threatening complications if they are not treated right away.

The respiratory and abdominal organs.
The respiratory and abdominal organs.

This virus responsible for respiratory infections is found worldwide, and it is very robust. It can survive on surfaces such as doorknobs and children's toys for several days, waiting to be picked up by a susceptible person. An individual who comes into contact with the respiratory syncytial virus can become infected by touching his or her nose or mouth. Being in the proximity of a sneezing or coughing person can also lead to direct infection. Symptoms of illness tend to appear within about four days of coming into contact with the virus.

People with a respiratory syncytial virus may experience fever, headaches, and joint pain.
People with a respiratory syncytial virus may experience fever, headaches, and joint pain.

The signs and symptoms that accompany respiratory syncytial virus infection can vary. Older children and adults tend to experience dry coughs, sore throats, chest congestion, and runny noses. Some people experience additional flu-like symptoms of joint pain, fever, and headaches. The condition tends to be more severe in infants and the elderly, quickly developing into chronic inflammatory problems, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis. An afflicted baby is likely to have a high fever and significant breathing difficulties as well.

Respiratory syncytial virus is a common pathogen that causes lung infections.
Respiratory syncytial virus is a common pathogen that causes lung infections.

A doctor can usually diagnose a respiratory syncytial virus infection with a simple physical examination. He or she may decide to take an x-ray of the chest to determine the severity of pneumonia or bronchiolitis. Routine blood tests can confirm the presence of the specific viral agent involved. After making a diagnosis, the doctor determines the best treatment based on the severity of symptoms.

A physical examination can often diagnose a respiratory syncytial virus.
A physical examination can often diagnose a respiratory syncytial virus.

Respiratory syncytial virus infections cannot be cured, but physicians can prescribe medications to lesson symptoms and shorten recovery time. Patients are commonly given antivirals and bronchodilators to relieve fever, pain, and airway constriction. An infant who has severe symptoms needs to be hospitalized so specialists can carefully monitor their conditions. A baby may be hooked up to a mechanical ventilator to stabilize breathing and given intravenous drugs and fluids to reduce fever. With one to two weeks of intensive care and regular follow-up evaluations, most babies are able to recover from their illnesses.

Severe headaches may be more likely in elderly people suffering from respiratory syncytial virus.
Severe headaches may be more likely in elderly people suffering from respiratory syncytial virus.
Respiratory syncytial viral infections can not be cured.
Respiratory syncytial viral infections can not be cured.
Respiratory syncytial virus is the number one cause of pneumonia in children under one year old.
Respiratory syncytial virus is the number one cause of pneumonia in children under one year old.

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