Respiratory syncytial virus

Respiratory syncytial virus (known as RSV) is a common and highly infectious virus. Most children will get RSV at least once before they turn two. RSV infection is a common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small to medium sized airways of the lung). Symptoms of RSV bronchiolitis may last for up to 10 days. Most children will feel sickest three to six days after the first signs of illness.

Signs and symptoms

The main signs and symptoms of RSV include:

  • runny nose
  • cough
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache

Children’s symptoms often worsen in the first two to three days of sickness. They may also experience wheezing, difficulty breathing and dehydration.

What causes RSV?

RSV is a virus. The virus can cause inflammation and mucous to build up quickly in children’s airways which can make it hard to breathe and cause lung infections, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

How is RSV diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose bronchiolitis by examining your child. Tests like a nasal swab may be done to confirm if the bronchiolitis is caused by RSV, but this is not usually required, particularly when there are high rates of RSV in the community.


Most cases of RSV are mild and can be treated at home with rest. Very young children, children with pre-existing lung diseases or children with severe bronchiolitis may need to go to hospital to get help with their breathing or feeding.

Care at home

  • Give your child small amounts of their usual fluids to drink regularly – this may help to relieve the build-up of mucous (congestion) and prevent dehydration.
  • Saltwater drops may be used to help clear mucous and nasal congestion in young infants.
  • Consider giving children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen if your child is uncomfortable with a fever (in doses recommended on the bottle).
  • Keep your child at home until their symptoms have stopped.
  • Wash hands regularly – RSV can easily spread from person to person, regular handwashing for 20 seconds with soap and water is the best way to stop it spreading to others.

When to get help

Call Triple Zero (000) if your child:

  • appears unwell and lethargic
  • is having lots of trouble breathing
  • is making a grunting noise
  • has blue-coloured lips or skin.

See your GP if your child has any common symptoms. If your child's breathing or feeding concerns you, go to your closest emergency department.

If you're not sure whether to go to an emergency department, call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) and speak to a registered nurse.

Developed by the Emergency department, Queensland Children’s Hospital. We acknowledge the input of consumers and carers.

Resource ID: FS064. Reviewed: August 2023.

Disclaimer: This information has been produced by healthcare professionals as a guideline only and is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your child’s doctor or healthcare professionals. Information is updated regularly, so please check you are referring to the most recent version. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.

Last updated: October 2023