Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common and easily transmissible virus that spreads rapidly in places like daycares and schools every year, usually during the fall and winter seasons. While its appearance has been somewhat predictable in previous years, since the reduction and dissolution of mask mandates established during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, RSV has begun to occur year-round causing an uptick in sicknesses in children and older adults. This, paired with less built-up immunity in children due to early pandemic precautions, has caused respiratory illnesses to make the rounds earlier than expected this year. Across the nation, the surge of RSV cases and respiratory viruses has doctors on high alert as many pediatric hospitals hit full capacity.

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a respiratory virus most commonly found in children under 2 and older adults that produces mild, cold-like symptoms. It can spread in a variety of ways, including droplets from the cough or sneeze of an infected person, touching surfaces that are contaminated with the virus, or making direct contact with the virus through the eyes, nasal passages, or mouth. While there is no specific treatment for most respiratory viruses, mild symptoms can be managed with over-the-counter fever and pain medications. If symptoms worsen, children and older adults are more at risk for hospitalization where they could receive oxygen support, breathing treatments, or intravenous fluids to maintain hydration.

Most people will recover in a week or two with little to no medical intervention, but the virus can cause serious health issues in very young children, older adults, and individuals with chronic health problems. RSV can cause more severe conditions like bronchiolitis (the inflammation of the small airways in the lungs), pneumonia, and lung infections. Common symptoms of RSV include:

  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Decreased appetite

Symptoms of RSV in children may also manifest as irritability or fussiness, a lack of hunger, decrease in playfulness or activity, or breathing problems. In young children, stomach retractions (breathing that pulls the chest in with each breath, especially around the ribs and collarbone), nasal flaring, noisy breathing, or pale or bluish skin, lips or tongue can all be signs of respiratory distress. If you notice any of these symptoms paired with a fever or a cough with phlegm or drainage that is thick and yellow-green colored, call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room.

Though RSV can be complicated, managing mild symptoms can be simple. Staying hydrated, getting plenty of rest and continuously draining congestion are all key factors to a faster recovery. Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help relieve pain and reduce fevers. At night, keeping the head elevated will also help in alleviating sinus pressure and congestion for more comfortable rest.

Why are Respiratory Viruses on the Rise?

At the beginning of the pandemic, infection rates for respiratory viruses substantially decreased due to lockdowns and pandemic precautions. Even after lockdowns ended, many respiratory viruses remained at historic lows until the end of 2020. As mask mandates gradually decreased in 2021 and have now all but ended, lowered immunity and reemerging crowds have caused respiratory illnesses to steadily increase, causing cases to rise outside of the usual fall and winter seasons. This has led to higher numbers of infection in children, including older children who had not previously gotten RSV due to the pandemic’s preventative measures, and older adults. This phenomenon is reflected in this year’s surge of RSV cases in the summer months as well as the overwhelming number of respiratory illnesses on the rise as we reach the winter season.

These factors combined are an indication of a more aggressive RSV season, one that’s already being observed in the increase of hospitalizations. RSV hospitalization rates for seniors are 10 times higher than usual at this point in the season, pre-pandemic. According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 out of every 100,000 seniors has been hospitalized with RSV – a number lower than the rate of children’s hospitalizations but still uncharacteristically high. Dr. Ann Falsey, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center, believes this could be due to older adults beginning to take less COVID-19 precautions like removing their masks, practicing less social distancing, and worrying less in general about the pandemic after adhering to stricter health measures a year longer than the rest of the major population.

What can I do to Stop the Spread?

This concerning data coupled with the abnormally high number of RSV infections earlier this year are warning signs that this winter may bring what health officials are calling a “tripledemic” – a surge of influenza, COVID-19, and RSV cases. You can help slow the spread of these viruses by taking preventative measures such as:

  • Practicing proper hygiene
  • Washing your hands regularly
  • Staying home when you feel sick or have symptoms and avoiding close contact with others
  • Covering your cough or sneeze
  • Disinfecting hard surfaces that are used often or have been touched by someone feeling sick
  • Avoiding touching your face

Taking precautions like these and being mindful of your health can help prevent and slow the spread of these viruses. Staying up to date on your immunizations slows infection rates as well while keeping you and your family protected. FirstMed Health and Wellness makes it easy to make an appointment for immunizations, sick visits, and preventative care. To make a Virtual or In-Person appointment, you can call us at (702) 731-0909 or find out more at FMHWC.org.


Division of Viral Diseases, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) (2022, October 28). RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html

McCarthy, C. (2022, October 23). Respiratory virus cases tick upward: What parents should know. Harvard Health. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/respiratory-virus-cases-tick-upward-what-parents-should-know-202107192548

National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) (2022, November 16). What is RSV and why are infections surging? UChicago News. Retrieved November 19, 2022, from https://news.uchicago.edu/story/what-rsv-and-why-are-infections-surging

Nationwide Children’s Hospital (June 2018). Respiratory Distress. Nationwide Children’s. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/conditions/respiratory-distress#:~:text=Retractions%20%2D%20Check%20to%20see%20if,nostrils%20widen%20when%20breathing%20in.&text=(%E2%80%9CUgh%E2%80%9D%20sound)%2C,mucus%20is%20in%20the%20throat.

Wei Yee Wan, et al. (2021, June 28). Trends in Respiratory Virus Infections During COVID-19 Pandemic in Singapore, 2020. JAMA Network Open. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2781461

Christensen, J. (2022, November 15). RSV Hospitalization rate for seniors is 10 times higher than usual for this point in the season. CNN Health. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/15/health/rsv-adults-wellness/index.html