RSV in Australia: Understanding the respiratory syncytial virus

RSV (or respiratory syncytial virus) together with COVID-19 and influenza are the “triple threat” doctors have been worried about this winter. While most people are familiar with the latter two viruses, RSV often goes unnoticed, even though it’s quite common.

What is RSV and why are we hearing so much about it now?

RSV is a highly contagious virus that primarily affects the respiratory system, causing respiratory tract infections. It spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through direct contact with contaminated surfaces. RSV can cause a range of symptoms, from mild cold-like symptoms to more severe respiratory illness. 

RSV is known to have seasonal outbreaks in Australia, with a higher prevalence during the cooler months. The virus can lead to a significant burden on healthcare systems, especially among vulnerable populations, such as infants and young children. Even older adults and individuals with compromised immune systems are at risk.

According to the federal Health Department, “almost all children will have been infected with RSV” by the time they turn three.

However, in the last couple of years, there are many more infants who have not been exposed to RSV before. These babies are either born during the pandemic when RSV was scarce, which means they didn’t develop immunity, or they were born just before the pandemic and didn’t have a chance to build up immunity like other children typically do in their early years. Because of their limited exposure, when these infants do contract the virus, it can cause more severe symptoms.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of RSV can vary depending on the age and overall health of the individual. 

Babies under one year of age are more likely to develop breathing problems such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. They can be unsettled and have difficulty feeding.

Young children may develop wheeze and difficulty breathing.

Older children and even adults may also have breathing problems, especially if they have chronic heart, lung or immune problems. Some babies, children and older adults may need admission to hospital to help their breathing or hydration.

How is RSV prevented?

There are currently no vaccines available for RSV. However, there’s every chance that may change in the not-so-distant future.

The best way to help stop the virus spreading is for everyone to always practice good hygiene, especially if you have flu-like symptoms:

  • stay at home if you don’t feel well

  • cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing

  • wear a mask in crowded places or if you are visiting high risk settings that have vulnerable people such as aged care facilities or hospitals

  • avoid contact with high risk people such as infants, older people and those who are immunocompromised until you feel better.

RAT tests, such as this one from TouchBio, can help detect and distinguish the presence of four respiratory viruses – RSV, influenza A/B and COVID-19. Self-testing at home is recommended when feeling unwell, experiencing respiratory symptoms, or after being in contact with someone diagnosed with any of these viruses.  This can provide valuable information for health professionals when patients are presenting with symptoms.

If you suspect you or your child has RSV or are experiencing severe respiratory symptoms, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional.

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates. 

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