• Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • Disease Issues

How serious is RSV in children?

Almost all U.S. infants and toddlers contract RSV illness within the first two years of life. RSV causes a mild respiratory illness in most, with symptoms including cough, runny nose, fever, and fatigue. Illness is more likely to be mild if the child is older at the time of first infection. Infants with RSV infection frequently develop bronchiolitis, a lower respiratory tract disease (LRTD) that can be severe.

RSV LRTD is the leading cause of hospitalization among U.S. infants, who may require supplemental oxygen, treatment for dehydration, or mechanical ventilation. Approximately 50,000–80,000 RSV-associated hospitalizations and 100–300 RSV-associated deaths occur each year among U.S. infants and children younger than age 5 years. The risk of severe RSV disease is increased by prematurity and lung disease, among other health conditions. However, RSV is also the leading cause of hospitalization among healthy, full-term infants. The large majority (almost 80%) of infants and children younger than age 2 who are hospitalized with RSV are otherwise healthy and have no underlying medical conditions.

Some otherwise healthy American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN) children experience higher rates of severe RSV disease than the general population. One study found that the incidence of RSV-associated hospitalization among children in their second RSV season in some AI/AN communities was 4 to 10 times higher than that of similar-aged children elsewhere in the United States. AI/AN children living in remote areas also may have difficulty accessing adequate medical care when they develop LRTD.

Last reviewed: January 22, 2024

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