respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a respiratory virus that commonly causes lower respiratory tract illnesses. It is more recognized as a childhood disease and leads to an increase in hospitalizations of children in their first or second year of life.
However, it is a common misconception that RSV is always a mild respiratory illness in adults.
Each year in the United States, RSV causes approximately 60,000 to 120,000 hospitalizations among adults older than 65 years and 6,000 to 10,000 deaths among adults older than 65 years. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION).
Natascha Tuznikclinical associate professor of infectious diseases at UC Davis Healthanswers questions about RSV, including why it can be serious, especially for adults over 65, and how you can prevent infection.
What is RSV?
RSV stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus. It is a common and contagious respiratory virus that usually causes mild colds and their accompanying symptoms. It is known to be more severe in infants, children under two years of age, and older adults, particularly those with compromised immune systems.
When is the peak season for RSV infection?
RSV typically peaks during the fall and winter months, and even early spring, when “colds” circulate most frequently. Historically, RSV started to appear in October and lasted until March or April, but the COVID-19 pandemic has changed this pattern. This year, cases were being seen as early as September.
Can RSV infections be dangerous for adults?
Yes. Again, this mostly comes down to risk factors and co-existing conditions. Age is considered a risk factor, in this case, from 65 years. People with chronic heart or lung conditions or weakened immune systems are also at risk for more serious illness.
What are the symptoms of RSV in adults?
Typical symptoms include cough, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, headache, low-grade fever, and fatigue. More serious symptoms can range from flu-like symptoms with more severe coughing and wheezing, to pneumonia, the inability to breathe effectively on one’s own, and even death.
How do adults get RSV?
RSV is spread from person to person through inhalation of infected respiratory (nose or throat) secretions from other people. It can also be acquired through contact with dried and infected respiratory secretions, such as shared hard surfaces and even bedding. This is why hand hygiene is so important.
How long will RSV symptoms last?
Most infections will resolve after 1 to 2 weeks, unless the infection is more severe, in which case it may last longer. The cough associated with RSV can last longer, even when you feel better.
What should you do if you have symptoms of RSV?
In most cases, supportive care is recommended. This includes common remedies such as rest, fluids, saline nasal drops or sprays, throat lozenges, decongestants (if safe to take), and over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers, specifically ibuprofen and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Cool mist humidifiers are an excellent option, especially if you live in a dry environment, to keep mucous membranes and airways moist. They can also help relieve airway irritation and lessen the severity of a cough. If you are at higher risk or develop more severe symptoms, you may need to see your doctor or possibly even head to the emergency room, depending on the severity.
How can an RSV infection be prevented?
The best prevention is to practice excellent hand hygiene, especially if you have symptoms or have been around someone with such symptoms. Avoid close contact, such as hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or sharing personal items, particularly kitchen utensils and items. Clean hard surfaces frequently with a disinfectant, including countertops, doorknobs, toilet handles, and cell phones. Also, wearing a face mask can decrease the spread of respiratory viruses from one person to another.