Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common, contagious, respiratory infection that can affect people of all ages. It can cause symptoms of a typical cold. But, in some situations, it may lead to a lung infection.

Typically, a bout of RSV is mild and resolves on its own within a few days or up to a week or two. You may feel better by using at-home treatments to relieve your symptoms. Sometimes RSV can lead to complications, requiring medical interventions and hospitalization.

Additionally, preventive treatments and vaccination can help lower your chances of having a severe infection if you are at risk. This article will discuss treating RSV at home, when to contact a healthcare provider or emergency healthcare, how long it lasts, and how to prevent transmitting RSV.

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RSV Treatment at Home

Usually, RSV is managed with at-home care, which can include over-the-counter (OTC) medications. It’s important to get enough rest while you are recovering from an RSV infection. 

Things to do when you have an RSV infection include:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking water, tea, or other non-caffeinated and low-sugar beverages.
  • Keep warm with a blanket if that makes you comfortable.
  • Get enough sleep. 
  • Don’t overexert yourself.
  • Take OTC medicine, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) to lower a fever.

You can use these at-home strategies as directed by your healthcare provider and for long as they make you feel better. 

How to Tell If a Medical Visit Is Needed

Often, with RSV, you can manage your illness on your own at home with the advice of your healthcare provider. Sometimes it is best to see a healthcare provider in person.

If you are feeling very sick, have unusual symptoms, or if you’re not improving as expected, call a healthcare provider to see if you need to make an in-person appointment. You might have a severe RSV infection, or you could have another illness that requires different treatment.

Concerning Symptoms

See a healthcare provider if you notice these symptoms in yourself or your child:

  • A persistent high fever of 103 degrees F or higher
  • Dizziness or light-headedness 
  • A rash 
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Feel extremely sleepy or sluggish 
  • Difficulty responding or interacting 
  • Confusion 
  • Tremors or seizures

Underlying Medical Issues 

Check with your healthcare provider as soon as you start to feel sick if you take immune-suppressing medication, or have an immune disorder such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), kidney disease, or any other condition that makes you susceptible to severe illness.

Underlying medical issues can often cause otherwise mild infections such as RSV to progress rapidly, potentially causing severe and life-threatening health problems.

RSV can lead to exacerbation of these existing conditions:

Breathing Trouble

Breathing problems are a sign of severe illness or infection. If you are having trouble catching your breath, are breathing rapidly, or are feeling pain when breathing, it’s important that you get medical attention. 

You may need some diagnostic tests, such as:

  • Chest X-ray: Can detect signs of lung complications, like pneumonia (lung infection) or bronchitis (infection or inflammation of the larger airways)
  • Pulse oximeter: Measures approximate blood oxygen level
  • Blood tests: Can identify health problems, such as an elevated white blood cell count (a sign of infection), anemia (low numbers of healthy red blood cells), low blood, oxygen, or electrolyte abnormalities (a sign of dehydration)

Some treatments for respiratory problems include oxygen supplementation or mechanical respiratory support until the problem resolves.


Illness can often result in dehydration. Sometimes having an infection can lower your appetite. If you aren’t drinking enough fluids or eating enough fruits and vegetables, you can get dehydrated. 

Viral infections can also cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. When this happens, dehydration can develop very quickly. Severe dehydration may cause light-headedness, dizziness, headaches, and fatigue.

Treatment for severe dehydration can require intravenous (IV, within a vein) fluids. Typically, dehydration can be treated within a day or two. As you regain your appetite, you will naturally be able to consume enough fluids.


Pain is often a sign of a severe health complication. If you have pain associated with RSV, this could be an indication of an ear infection or a lung infection, depending on where the pain is located.

Make sure you tell your healthcare provider about any pain that you or your child is experiencing. The evaluation and treatment will be planned according to the location and type of your pain.

When to Seek Emergency Care 

For severe infections, a hospital stay may be required. During a hospital stay, you could expect to get medication to treat a fever, pain medication, oxygen supplementation, and IV fluids. While you’re in the hospital, you can expect to be monitored for complications, such as low oxygen or electrolyte changes.

Get prompt medical attention if you or your child experiences any of the following:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid, shallow breaths
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Feeling like your pulse is fast
  • Unusually tired
  • Decreased amount of urine or very dark urine
  • Coughing up blood
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Vomiting blood
  • Excessive diarrhea
  • Blood in the stool

How Long Does RSV Last?

Typically, RSV should last for no longer than a few weeks. Generally, the phase of feeling very sick only lasts for a few days. During this time, it is important to get rest, stay comfortable, and get advice from your healthcare provider.

If your condition seems to be worsening, if you have other symptoms, or if it is lasting for longer—then make sure you get medical attention.

High Risk

If there’s anyone who could be at risk of having a severe infection due to a weak immune system, it’s important that you avoid exposing them to the virus while you are still contagious. People who are at high risk include infants, young children, adults over age 60, and anyone who has a weak immune system.

How to Prevent Spreading RSV

RSV can be transmitted in these ways:

  • By direct contact with someone who has an RSV infection
  • Through droplets, when someone who has the virus coughs or sneezes
  • By touching surfaces that have the virus

You can be contagious starting a few days before you begin to have symptoms and for three to eight days after symptoms start.

When you have symptoms of RSV or other respiratory infections, follow these precautions:

  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or shirtsleeve when sneezing or coughing. Avoid covering with your hands as you can spread the virus to surfaces you touch.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Scrub for 20 seconds before rinsing.
  • Keep a distance between yourself and others. Avoid shaking hands or kissing.
  • Don't share cups or utensils with others.
  • Frequently clean surfaces that are shared and touched often, like doorknobs, faucets, shopping carts, or shared electronic devices.
  • Avoid interacting with babies or children at higher risk of severe RSV.

Medical Prevention

A vaccine and medical treatments are available to help protect against RSV. These preventive treatments are recommended for some populations.

RSV vaccine may be recommended for adults age 60 and older and for people with underlying medical conditions.

Monoclonal antibody products Beyfortus (nirsevimab) and Synagis (palivizumab) may be recommended to help protect babies and young children from severe complications if they acquire an RSV infection. They are not used during an RSV infection.


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common and contagious respiratory infection that attacks people of all ages. Usually, it only lasts for a few days or up to a few weeks and resolves on its own without causing any serious health problems.

For some people, especially those who have a weakened immune system, the infection can become severe. Infants and people over 60 are at higher risk.

You can protect yourself against RSV infection by getting a vaccine or antibody treatment. Your healthcare provider will advise you regarding whether you need extra protection against RSV. It’s important to get regular medical checkups and preventive care.

By Heidi Moawad, MD

Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.  

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