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What is a Respiratory Virus?

J.M. Willhite
J.M. Willhite

A respiratory virus, also known as a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), is a condition that leads to an infection of the lungs and respiratory system. Spread through both direct and indirect contact with an infected individual, there is a slight risk of complication for certain individuals. Treatment for RSV usually involves the use of over-the-counter medications, though prompt medical attention and hospitalization may be required if severe complications develop.

Entering the body through mucus membranes, such as those located in the eyes and nose, RSV is very contagious and commonly spread through the spittle produced when coughing and sneezing. Transmission of the virus may occur through inhalation and hand-to-mouth contact, so it is essential to cover one’s mouth when sneezing and coughing and avoid hand-to-mouth or hand-to-eye contact after touching a contaminated object. Those who contract a respiratory virus may experience a variety of symptoms that manifest within four to six days following initial exposure.

The respiratory system.
The respiratory system.

Adolescents and adults may experience symptoms that resemble those associated with a common cold, including sore throat, congestion, and headache. More severe symptoms may include wheezing, a high fever, and persistent cough. Infants and small children frequently experience more pronounced and severe symptoms, such as rapid, shallow breathing, lethargy, and decreased appetite. Though symptoms generally subside within two weeks, prompt medical attention should be sought for severe symptoms, such as a bluish-color to the skin that is indicative of a lack of oxygen, known as cyanosis.

A physician may listen to a patient's lungs with a stethoscope to diagnose a respiratory virus.
A physician may listen to a patient's lungs with a stethoscope to diagnose a respiratory virus.

A diagnosis of a respiratory virus is generally made during a physical examination. The attending physician will use a stethoscope to listen to the individual’s lungs to determine if there are any abnormalities, such as wheezing. Additional tests may include a blood test to determine the presence of bacteria, a chest X-ray, and a laboratory analysis of mucus cultures collected from the nose.

RSV can be spread through coughing and sneezing, so covering one's mouth is important.
RSV can be spread through coughing and sneezing, so covering one's mouth is important.

Since the origin of the RSV infection is viral and not bacterial it does not respond to antibiotics. Only when a secondary bacterial infection is present, such as an ear infection, will an antibiotic be prescribed. In most cases, over-the-counter medications are recommended to alleviate the discomfort associated with a respiratory virus, such as throat lozenges and acetaminophen. Individuals with a severe RSV may require hospitalization and the intravenous administration of fluids to prevent dehydration. An artificial breathing machine may be employed to ease the individual’s ability to breathe.

Individuals who experience a migration of the virus to the upper respiratory system may develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
Individuals who experience a migration of the virus to the upper respiratory system may develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

There are several potential complications associated with a respiratory virus. Individuals who experience a migration of the virus to the upper respiratory system may develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Very young children, individuals of advanced age, and those with a compromised immune system are at an increased risk for developing upper respiratory complications associated with RSV. Additional complications include the development of asthma, middle ear infection, and an increased susceptibility to further infection.

RSV is very contagious and commonly spread through the spittle produced by coughing and sneezing.
RSV is very contagious and commonly spread through the spittle produced by coughing and sneezing.

Respiratory viruses may be prevented by making proactive changes to one’s hygiene and lifestyle habits. Since there is no vaccination for the virus, it is essential that individuals regularly wash their hands, abstain from sharing drinking glasses and eating utensils, and avoid contact with infected individuals to prevent the spread of RSV. Preventive medications may be administered to very young children who are at an increased risk for developing complications associated with the virus.

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    • The respiratory system.
      By: pixelcaos
      The respiratory system.
    • A physician may listen to a patient's lungs with a stethoscope to diagnose a respiratory virus.
      By: leelaryonkul
      A physician may listen to a patient's lungs with a stethoscope to diagnose a respiratory virus.
    • RSV can be spread through coughing and sneezing, so covering one's mouth is important.
      By: leungchopan
      RSV can be spread through coughing and sneezing, so covering one's mouth is important.
    • Individuals who experience a migration of the virus to the upper respiratory system may develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
      By: Yang MingQi
      Individuals who experience a migration of the virus to the upper respiratory system may develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
    • RSV is very contagious and commonly spread through the spittle produced by coughing and sneezing.
      By: RTimages
      RSV is very contagious and commonly spread through the spittle produced by coughing and sneezing.
    • Respiratory viruses cause infections in the lungs or other parts of the respiratory system.
      By: decade3d
      Respiratory viruses cause infections in the lungs or other parts of the respiratory system.
    • Wheezing, fever, and a persistent cough may be signs of a respiratory virus.
      By: Photographee.eu
      Wheezing, fever, and a persistent cough may be signs of a respiratory virus.
    • A child dealing with a respiratory virus may need to use a respirator to aid with breathing.
      By: bnmk0819
      A child dealing with a respiratory virus may need to use a respirator to aid with breathing.
    • Adults infected with a respiratory virus may experience symptoms similar to those associated with a common cold.
      By: Halfpoint
      Adults infected with a respiratory virus may experience symptoms similar to those associated with a common cold.