This webpage provides questions and answers (Q&A) about the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

What is RSV?

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. This respiratory virus can make people ill. RSV is common in the Netherlands, especially in winter. Almost all young children in the Netherlands will have an RSV infection before the age of three. In the past two years, RSV has also been more common in other seasons of the year. This is due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related coronavirus measures. After the measures were discontinued, the annual pattern of RSV infections in the Netherlands was (temporarily) disrupted.

What are the symptoms of an RSV infection?

Symptoms usually include:

  • nasal cold
  • coughing

RSV may also cause more serious symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • pneumonia
  • ear infection (especially in children)

The incubation period between exposure and illness is 2 to 8 days. On average, it takes 5 days to develop symptoms.

Is there any treatment for RSV infection?

The illness usually goes away on its own. This can take several days, but may be as long as a week. If your child is showing signs of respiratory distress (wheezing, panting, drowsiness, greyish-blue around the mouth), contact your GP or the out-of-hours medical centre immediately. The Thuisarts website offers more details in Dutch.

How does an RSV infection happen?

The virus is found in the throat of an infected person. When they cough or sneeze, tiny droplets containing the virus are expelled into the air. If other people inhale the droplets, they could become infected. Coughing and sneezing may also cause droplets containing the virus to land on people’s hands or on toys and other surfaces. Hand contact can transfer the virus to eyes, mouth or nose, thus infecting other people.
A person who has RSV is contagious (can transmit the virus to others) shortly before they become ill. Children under 2 years old are contagious for much longer (up to 3-4 weeks) than children over 2 (about 5 days). Adults are usually contagious for 5 to 7 days. People with impaired immunity may continue to be contagious for months after an RSV infection. 

Who can contract an RSV infection?

Anyone can get RSV. Some people have a higher risk of becoming ill from an RSV infection. This is especially applicable to people who spend time in groups, such as in childcare or in a nursing home. Some people are more likely to develop severe illness from RSV:

  • babies under six months old, especially premature infants
  • children under 2 years old, especially if they also have an underlying health condition that affects their lungs or heart, or causes impaired immunity
  • adults who have reduced immunity due to illness or medication
  • adults with heart or lung disease
  • people over 65

You can get RSV more than once. Previous infection does not prevent illness.

What can you do to prevent RSV infection?

It is difficult to prevent exposure. What can you do?

When you cough or sneeze,

  • use a paper tissue. If you do not have a paper tissue at hand, cough into your elbow.
  • Use a paper tissue only once and discard it after use.
  • Regularly wash your hands with soap and water.
  • You do not have to avoid all contact with anyone who is sneezing or coughing. However, newborn babies should be kept away from people who are sneezing and coughing.

Other than that:

  • Breastfeeding helps protect newborn babies from RSV infection. Breast milk contains the mother’s antibodies, which help protect the baby from an infection.
  • Toys that children put in their mouths should be cleaned every day. You can use normal household cleaners for this.

There is no vaccine to prevent illness resulting from RSV. But researchers are working on it.

Can a person with RSV infection go to childcare, school or work?

A child who feels fine or is sufficiently recovered can go to childcare or school. It is not possible to avoid all contact with the virus, which is a very common cause of upper respiratory infections during the winter. 

If your child has an RSV infection, tell the childcare provider or teacher. They can consult with the Municipal Public Health Services (GGDs) to notify other parents as needed, so parents can be alert to possible RSV symptoms in their children. Precautionary measures at the childcare centre or school may sometimes be needed.

An adult with an RSV infection who feels fine or is sufficiently recovered can go to work as usual.

If you have more questions about RSV, please contact your GP or call the Infectious Disease Control department at your local GGD. More information about RSV in children is available (in Dutch) on the Thuisarts website.