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The Return of RSV Explained

October 25, 2022

Hospitals in Pennsylvania and across the country are monitoring an earlier-than-usual arrival of RSV and its potential to strain hospital capacity.

RSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus, is a common illness that usually causes cold-like symptoms, but it can be serious for certain high-risk groups. Infectious disease experts say the public health precautions that helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the flu in recent years also led to a reduction in RSV.

“With mask-wearing and physical distancing for COVID-19, there were fewer cases of RSV in 2020,” Andrea Jones, MD, FAAP, noted in a recent blog post for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “However, once safety measures relaxed with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, a rise in RSV cases began in spring 2021.”

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Symptoms:  It typically takes between four to six days after infection to show symptoms, which can include runny nose, coughing, sneezing, fever, wheezing, and a decrease in appetite. Nearly all children will have RSV at some point before turning 2, and it is mild in most cases.
  • By the numbers:  It’s estimated that there are about 2.1 million outpatient visits for children younger than 5 due to the virus. RSV leads to about 58,000 hospitalizations for children younger than 5 and 177,000 for people 65 and older each year.
  • Transmission:  People infected with RSV are usually contagious for three to eight days. The virus spreads through coughs or sneezes, touching surfaces with the virus on it, or other direct contact with the virus.
  • Higher-risk groups:  Infants, young children, and older adults can get more serious complications if they get sick with RSV. The virus also can make chronic health problems worse.
  • Treatment:  There is no dedicated treatment for an RSV infection and care typically focuses on relieving symptoms and staying hydrated. Research is underway to develop antiviral medicine to fight the virus.

In Pennsylvania, flu cases also are starting to increase, but it remains early in the flu season.

HAP encourages everyone to take the public health precautions to reduce the spread of RSV and other seasonal respiratory illnesses. This includes staying home when sick, covering your coughs and sneezes, cleaning frequently touched surfaces, and washing your hands thoroughly.

HAP has developed a toolkit highlighting the ways RSV can strain hospital emergency departments, longer than usual emergency department wait times, options for non-emergency care, and the importance of COVID-19 and flu vaccinations. The communications toolkit includes key messages, social media assets, and other resources and is available online.

Additional information about RSV, including resources for health care professionals, is available online.