Is It a Bad Cold or RSV? - ConvenientMD

Is It a Bad Cold or RSV?


In the winter months, young children tend to be especially susceptible to respiratory viruses. While most colds are fairly innocuous and can be expected to resolve on their own, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) can lead to more serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. It is important to understand what to look for to identify RSV and determine if your child is suffering from more than just a bad cold.

What is RSV and What are the Symptoms?

Short for “respiratory syncytial virus,” RSV occurs most often throughout the winter months and can affect people of all ages. It is one of the many viruses that causes illness of the nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms of RSV include:

  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Excessive mucus production
  • Redness of the eyes
  • Sore, scratchy throat

Generally, RSV manifests as a bad cold and for adults and healthy children it will run its course and go away on its own. However, RSV can make some children very sick. Children under the age of two are particularly susceptible to developing bronchiolitis, a lower respiratory tract infection that occurs when the virus attacks small airways in the lungs. Symptoms of bronchiolitis usually last 5 to 7 days and include:

  • Fast breathing
  • Flaring of the nostrils
  • Head bobbing with breathing
  • Belly breathing, tugging between their ribs and/or tugging at the lower neck
  • Wheezing


How to Tell if It’s RSV

Since symptoms of the common cold and RSV can mirror one another for the most part, it’s impossible to confirm the presence of the virus via observation or physical exam alone. The only way to know for certain if RSV is present is to take mucus samples from the nose and test for the virus. Testing is generally reserved for individuals who present with moderate-to severe symptoms.

Treating RSV in Babies and Young Children

Since RSV is caused by a virus and not bacteria, antibiotics are not a helpful form of treatment—the same principle applies to treating the common cold. RSV can cause breathing difficulties and lead to diminished oxygen levels if allowed to progress into bronchiolitis, in which case hospitalization may be required—particularly for babies under the age of one. For children under the age of 2, recommended care involves frequent nasal saline irrigation followed by suctioning, along with close monitoring. Parents should be educated in proper technique and advised to do this if the infant has any work of breathing. Most cases of RSV last between 7 and 21 days.

When to Seek Treatment

Most healthy children can recover from RSV on their own without treatment. However, if you suspect your child is suffering from more than just a bad cold or if your child is experiencing any of the symptoms of bronchiolitis listed above it is important to seek treatment to prevent further progression of the illness.