RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)

During winter, there is usually an increase in infectious respiratory illnesses. These are caused by a range of viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). They infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs.

These include:

  • Colds
  • Influenza-like Illnesses (ILI) – includes RSV, parainfluenza viruses and rhinoviruses
  • Influenza

RSV spreads very easily from person to person, through saliva or mucus. These can be passed on by breathing, speaking, sneezing or coughing near others.

Most people take seven to 10 days to recover from influenza-like illnesses but they usually get better on their own. In some vulnerable people (such as the very young, elderly or those with complex medical conditions) these viral infections can spread into the lungs and cause severe illness.

Covering coughs and sneezes with your elbow, and regular and thorough hand washing/drying are important steps to prevent the spread of illness.


RSV and other influenza-like illnesses can cause a range of respiratory symptoms, including:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Loss of appetite or difficulty feeding
  • Wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue/tiredness
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea can also occur (especially in children)

In very young infants, irritability or decreased activity might be the only signs your child is becoming more unwell and needs to see a doctor. 

If adults or children develop concerning symptoms, such as rapid breathing, difficulty breathing, chest pain, severe vomiting, or if a child is not responding or is difficult to wake up, they should seek medical attention immediately – including calling 111 for an ambulance if it is an emergency.

RSV and other influenza like illnesses (ILI) are viruses spread easily from person to person when an infected person speaks, sings, sneezes or coughs near others.

People can be infected by touching their mouth, nose or eyes after touching contaminated objects or a person with RSV.

These viruses can survive for many hours on hard surfaces such as tables or toys. It can survive on soft surfaces such as hands and tissues for shorter amounts of time.

What should I do if I or my child is sick with RSV or ILI?

  • Anyone who is unwell should stay at home until 24 hours after their symptoms have gone and they feel well. This may take a week or longer.
  • If you have been unwell, or have experienced symptoms, you should not visit an older person or aged residential care facilities until 24 hours after their symptoms have stopped and they are well.  
  • People with underlying medical conditions who are at increased risk of complications are strongly encouraged to avoid contact with sick people and have good hand washing practices.

Antibiotics do not help as a treatment for RSV or other viruses, but may be prescribed if serious bacterial complications develop.

Prednisolone is not used to treat RSV but may be given if there are conditions like asthma or viral croup worsened by these viruses.

Once recovered, parents can provide a medical certificate from a GP to say their child is well enough to return to early learning services or school.


There is no vaccine to prevent RSV illness but it is important to be vaccinated against other diseases like whooping cough (pertussis). An influenza vaccine is free for some children and adults. You can talk to your doctor to learn more.

Good cough and hand hygiene also prevents the spread of these viruses:

  • Sneeze or cough into your elbows and carefully discard dirty tissues, and encourage children to do the same.
  • Regularly wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and dry them thoroughly.
  • Clean surfaces thoroughly, especially those at child height.
  • Avoid sharing cutlery.
  • If toys are shared, they should be washed in warm water and detergent at the end of the day, or more often if they are sneezed on put in a child's mouth.


Advice and guidance for Early Learning Services (ELS)

The risk of infection can be reduced by increasing cleaning of areas with frequent hand contact. Clean all areas and items that are more likely to have frequent hand contact (like doorknobs, taps, handrails, toys) routinely and also immediately when visibly soiled. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas. Disinfection of environmental surfaces beyond routine cleaning is not required.

Respiratory viruses can spread in inadequately ventilated internal spaces. Ensure windows can be opened and air-conditioning systems operate properly. It is advisable that air handling systems do not re-circulate air and are vented to the outside wherever possible.

RSV and other influenza-like illnesses are not notifiable, so National Public Health Service (NPHS) - Northern Region does not need to be informed about individual cases. 

However, if you manage an early learning service, school or aged residential care facility, please contact NPHS - Northern Region if there are increasing numbers of cases of RSV or ILI in your organisation.


The following links have some good tips for looking after children with winter illnesses: 

KidsHealth also has information to help you identify if your child is struggling to breathe:

Last updated 29.11.2022

For health advice call Healthline for free anytime on 0800 611 116
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