Health conditions

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

  • Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common, highly infectious virus that affects the respiratory system (lungs and breathing passages).
  • RSV is an unpredictable virus that causes seasonal outbreaks, usually during winter.
  • RSV infections are usually mild with cold-like symptoms, but can cause more serious illnesses, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
  • Eligible infants and young children can get immunised against RSV.
What is RSV?

RSV is a virus that usually causes a respiratory infection in the airways and lungs.

How do you get RSV?

RSV easily spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks sending respiratory droplets containing the virus into the air. These droplets can end up in other people’s eyes, nose or mouths where they can cause infection. The droplets can also land on objects, such as door handles, surfaces or toys, where other people can touch them and then transfer the virus to their eyes nose or mouths.

It can also spread through hand-to-hand contact with an infected person.

What are the signs and symptoms of RSV?

RSV infections are often mild with symptoms similar to a common cold.  RSV is one of the most frequent causes of coughs, colds, and earaches, but the illness can worsen quickly, in as little as 2 to 3 days after infection. 

Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • runny nose
  • headache
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • wheezing.

In infants and children, RSV infection may cause difficulty breathing, and the infection may progress to more serious respiratory infections such as:

RSV can be diagnosed by a PCR test (nose or throat swab) or a blood test.

How common is RSV?

RSV is the leading cause of infant hospitalisation in Australia. Each year between 900-1300 infants are hospitalised with RSV in WA.  An estimated 65 per cent of all infants will get infected with RSV in their first year of life and 1 in 50 will be hospitalised as a result of their illness.

Who is most at risk of RSV?

RSV infections can affect anyone and are usually mild.

RSV can affect people of all ages.  Babies aged less than 6 months of age are at highest risk for severe illness, and babies/children with pre-existing lung conditions are at higher risk of becoming unwell with RSV infections and may require admission to hospital. RSV infections can also trigger symptoms in children with asthma.

People with health conditions that lower their immunity, adults aged 65 years and older, and Aboriginal people also have a higher risk of serious illness.

Is there an immunisation to protect against RSV?

An immunisation will be available for some babies and young children from early April.

How can we prevent the spread of RSV?

RSV infections can be prevented by:

  • Practicing good hand hygiene by regularly washing your hands with soap and water or using hand sanitiser
  • Practicing good personal hygiene which includes covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, wearing a mask when leaving the home and avoiding close contact with others.
  • Keeping infected people away from others until they recover, particularly those at higher risk (babies, infants, children and older adults)
  • Cleaning surfaces and items that may be contaminated with a detergent that can kill viruses.
How do you treat RSV?


For mild RSV infections, they can be treated with rest, drinking lots of water and taking simple over the counter pain medication, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, if needed.

People with more serious RSV infections may require hospitalisation.

Antibiotics will not help fight the RSV infection unless there is a secondary bacterial infection present.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222
  • For emergency or life-threatening conditions, visit an emergency department or dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance

Last reviewed: 08-03-2024

Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.