Respiratory Syncytial Virus | Diagnosis & Treatments

How is RSV diagnosed?

Our doctors will begin by reviewing your child's complete medical history and then conduct a physical examination. Other diagnostic tests for RSV may include:

  • culture of your child's nasal drainage
  • chest x-ray: a diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film
  • pulse oximetry: an oximeter is a small machine that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood
RSV has been under appreciated. There's been disproportionate attention given to influenza, even though our data show morbidity to be very high from RSV. Based on our data, much more should be done in terms of prevention.

— Florence Bourgeois, MD, MPH, of Division of Emergency Medicine and the Children's Hospital Informatics Program

How we treat RSV

There is no cure for RSV, so if your child is infected treatment is supportive (aimed at treating the symptoms present). The care of your child or infant involves treating the effects of the virus on the respiratory system. Because a virus causes the infection, antibiotics are not useful.

Treatment for RSV may include:

  • keeping your child well hydrated by encouraging fluids by mouth; if necessary an intravenous (IV) line may be started to give your child fluids and essential electrolytes
  • bronchodilator medications administered in an aerosol mist by a mask or through an inhaler (to open your child's airways)
  • supplemental oxygen through a mask, nasal prongs, or an oxygen tent
  • anti-viral aerosol medication (generally used only with very high-risk children)
  • mechanical ventilation or a "respirator" (to assist with breathing for a period of time)

Preventive medications and RSV

Two medications are recommended for babies and children at high risk for RSV to protect them against the serious complications of the illness. This includes children with weakened immune systems, organ recipients, and premature infants. These are usually given monthly during the RSV "season" from late fall through spring.

These medications are not vaccines, and they do not prevent the virus. However, they do lessen the severity of the illness and may help shorten the hospital stay.