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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection and Human Metapneumovirus Infection


Brenda L. Tesini

, MD, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Last full review/revision Sep 2019| Content last modified Sep 2019
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Respiratory syncytial virus infection and human metapneumovirus infection cause upper and sometimes lower respiratory tract infections.

  • Respiratory syncytial virus is a very common cause of respiratory infections in infants and young children.

  • Human metapneumovirus is similar to respiratory syncytial virus but is a separate virus.

  • Typical symptoms include a runny nose, fever, cough, and wheezing, and a severe infection can lead to respiratory distress.

  • The diagnosis is based on symptoms and their occurrence at expected times of year.

  • Palivizumab is given to children at high risk of developing a severe respiratory syncytial virus infection.

  • Oxygen is given as needed.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a very common cause of respiratory tract infection, particularly in children. Nearly all children have been infected by age 4 years, many in the first year of life. Infection does not provide complete immunity, so reinfection is common, although usually less serious. Outbreaks typically occur in winter and early spring. RSV is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract illness in young infants and is responsible for more than 50,000 hospitalizations every year in the United States in children under the age of 5 years.

The first infection often progresses from an upper respiratory tract illness with congestion and fever to involve the lower respiratory tract, most commonly causing bronchiolitis and sometimes pneumonia with cough and difficulty breathing. Later infections usually involve only the upper respiratory tract. Children who have had bronchiolitis are more likely to be diagnosed with asthma when they are older.

Children with serious underlying disorders (such as congenital heart disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis, or immune system suppression) or who were born prematurely, and infants under 3 months of age are at particular risk of developing serious illness. Adults and older children also can be infected with RSV, and the elderly may develop pneumonia.

Human metapneumovirus (hMPV) is a similar but separate virus. hMPV occurs at the same seasonal time as RSV but does not infect as many children.


RSV and hMPV cause similar symptoms. A runny nose and fever begin 3 to 5 days after infection. About half of children with a first infection also develop a cough and wheezing, indicating lower respiratory tract involvement. In infants younger than 6 months old, the first symptom may be a period of not breathing (apnea). Some children, usually young infants, develop severe respiratory distress, and a few die.

In healthy adults and older children, illness is usually mild and may manifest only as a common cold.


  • A doctor's evaluation

Doctors usually suspect RSV (and possibly hMPV) infection in young infants and children who have bronchiolitis or pneumonia during RSV season or during an outbreak. Tests are usually not done unless doctors are trying to identify an outbreak or if hospitalization is required.

When necessary, samples of nasal secretions are evaluated by a rapid antigen test, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, or culture to help identify the virus.


  • Good hygiene

  • Injections of palivizumab for high-risk children

Practicing good hygiene is an important preventive measure. An ill child and the people in the household should wash their hands frequently. In general, the more intimate physical contact (such as hugging, snuggling, or bed sharing) that takes place with an ill child, the greater the risk of spreading the infection to other family members. Parents must balance this risk with the need to comfort an ill child.

There is no vaccine to prevent RSV or hMPV infection at the present time.

Doctors may give monthly injections of palivizumab, which contains antibodies against RSV, to certain children who are at high risk of developing a severe RSV infection. High-risk children include infants and young children who have serious heart or lung disease and/or who are very premature or who are otherwise at very high risk. The injections are given for the length of the RSV season.

Children who receive palivizumab are less likely to need hospitalization, but doctors are not sure whether this treatment prevents death or serious complications.


  • Oxygen for breathing difficulty

Children who have difficulty breathing are taken to a hospital. Depending on their condition, doctors may treat them with oxygen and fluids by vein. Ribavirin, an antiviral drug, is no longer recommended except for children whose immune system is severely weakened.

Most children do not need to be hospitalized. Treatment at home is mainly symptom relief. For example, children may be give pain relievers and fluids to prevent dehydration. Parents should closely monitor children for signs of serious breathing difficulties or dehydration.

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