Monday Medical: Watching for signs of RSV |

Monday Medical: Watching for signs of RSV

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

With fall fast approaching, seasonal colds are kicking in — including RSV, a common virus that can sometimes turn serious.

“The usual season for RSV is November through April, but the typical season was disrupted during the COVID pandemic, so there has been an increase in spring and summer infections with RSV this year,” said Dr. Ron Famiglietti, a pediatrician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Famiglietti outlines what you need to know about RSV.

What is RSV?

RSV is a virus that causes an upper respiratory infection, commonly called a cold. Other viruses that cause upper respiratory infections include influenza, adenovirus, rhinovirus and corona viruses, including COVID-19.

RSV can infect anyone but is usually mild in adults and older children. It can be more serious in infants, older adults and anyone who is immunocompromised or who has heart or lung disease. Almost all children have had RSV by the time they’re 2 years old, and repeat infections are usually less severe.

How is it transmitted?

Direct contact is the most common way the virus is transmitted. Some transmission may happen through droplets, for instance if someone who’s infected coughs or sneezes. The virus can also survive on surfaces for several hours.

The first line of defense is thoroughly and regularly washing your hands.

“Good hand washing after touching surfaces and other people helps prevent infection the most,” Famiglietti said.

Most people can spread the virus for 11 days after becoming ill, but young infants may spread the virus for four weeks or longer.

What are symptoms of RSV?

Four to six days after exposure, symptoms start to develop. Similar to other cold viruses, RSV can cause a cough, congestion, runny nose and a fever. It can also impact the lungs.

“RSV has a greater chance of also affecting the lungs than the other ‘cold’ viruses,” Famiglietti said. “This is particularly true in certain patient populations, such as infants under 1 year of age, especially if they were born prematurely, and persons of any age with heart or lung problems.”

RSV is more likely to affect the lungs in people who have asthma, are immunocompromised, live at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet and are exposed to cigarette smoke.

Signs that the lungs have been impacted include difficulty breathing; rapid breathing; depressions in the skin between the ribs when breathing, known as retractions; and a blue tint to the skin.

“If any of these signs are present, an urgent medical evaluation should be done,” Famiglietti said.

How is it treated?

“There is no medicine that cures RSV,” Famiglietti said. “As with most viruses, it needs to run its course over several days. There are some medicines that may help relieve symptoms, though.”

Acetaminophen can help reduce discomfort and fever, while honey has been shown to help with the cough. Parents should keep in mind that honey should only be used with children who are older than 1 year old.

Adults may use decongestants and expectorants.

Medicine may be prescribed to help prevent patients from getting RSV, but it is offered to only a select group of very high-risk infants and is not helpful for patients who already have RSV.

The use of steroids and nebulizer treatments have not been shown to help patients with RSV, unless in certain cases, such as if patients also have asthma.

Since RSV symptoms can be similar to those of COVID-19, don’t hesitate to see your health care provider if you or your child is symptomatic.

“If there is concern about RSV infection or COVID infection, a simple test can be done in the doctor’s office to identify both of these infections,” Famiglietti said. “While the test result may not change the patient’s treatment significantly, it can affect quarantine recommendations.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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