Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that in most people causes just symptoms or mild illness. Babies, children, and older adults are usually more sensitive to the virus and may become much sicker if they catch it.

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Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that causes mild illness in most people. However, for babies, young children, and older adults – or anyone else with a weakened immune system – this virus can cause more severe symptoms and serious illness.

Learn more about RSV.

RSV affects people of different age groups differently. Infants, young children, and people older than 60 are at greater risk of serious symptoms and hospitalization from RSV than teens and younger adults.

Here’s more information about how RSV affects different age ranges:

Infants and young children are one of the groups that may develop severe illness from RSV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 58,000 to 80,000 children under 5 years old with RSV are hospitalized, and 100 to 300 children younger than 5 die each year from RSV. RSV can lead to more severe illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

RSV symptoms in infants and young children

For infants and children, symptoms of RSV can be difficult to tell apart from symptoms of other viral respiratory illnesses.

Early symptoms may include:

In severe cases of RSV, coughing can progress to wheezing and difficulty breathing.

In very young babies, symptoms can also include:

  • irritability
  • decreased activity or energy
  • decreased appetite
  • pauses in breathing that last 10 seconds or more (apnea)

Risk factors for RSV in infants and young children

Children under the age of 5 are at a higher risk of catching RSV than older children. Infants and younger children have immune systems that aren’t fully developed yet, but other reasons some children are at a higher risk from RSV include:

Teenagers aren’t as likely to become seriously ill from RSV, although certain medical conditions or immune system conditions can increase anyone’s risk of becoming severely ill from RSV.

Symptoms in teens with RSV

Symptoms of RSV in teens include:

Risk factors for RSV in teens

Most teens and adults develop mild respiratory symptoms from RSV. Symptoms typically begin about 4 to 6 days after infection and may include:

Like teens, most adults can also have RSV without becoming severely ill. Adults with weakened immune systems or certain medical conditions may be at an increased risk.

Symptoms in adults with RSV

Symptoms in adults are similar to those in teens and may include:

Risk factors for RSV in adults

Risk factors in adults include being exposed to someone with RSV. Adults with weakened immune systems or other medical conditions may have more serious symptoms from RSV.

Adults ages 65 and older fall into the age range most seriously affected by RSV. More older adults are hospitalized or die from RSV than children.

According to the CDC, between 60,000 and 160,000 older adults are hospitalized with RSV each year, and between 6,000 and 10,000 die.

Symptoms in adults with RSV

Adults ages 65 and older are usually at a greater risk of getting RSV, but symptoms in this group are similar to the ones in younger adults. However, older adults are more likely to develop severe complications from RSV.

The virus can also worsen underlying conditions older adults may have such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure, and asthma.

Risk factors for RSV in older adults

Adults older than 65 are also at an increased risk because of the fact that immunity decreases with age. However, adults of any age with a weakened immune system or heart or lung problems also have a higher risk of severe illness.

When to get emergency care

Whether you have RSV or another respiratory infection, get immediate medical care if you or your child develop difficulty breathing.

Symptoms of emergency respiratory problems include:

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Because RSV is a viral illness, antibiotics won’t help treat these infections. There are antiviral medications for some viral diseases, but RSV isn’t one of them.

At this time, the only real treatment is supportive care or symptom relief. This can include the use of medications such as:

If RSV becomes severe, additional treatments may include:

Currently, there’s no vaccine approved to prevent an RSV infection. A healthcare professional may suggest some specific steps you can take to keep from getting sick. These can include:

  • avoiding people who are sick
  • washing your hands well and often
  • avoiding touching your face or mouth

Infants and children

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends a medication called palivizumab for premature infants and very young children who have heart or lung conditions that put them at a high risk of a severe RSV infection. This injection is given roughly every 30 days during RSV season to children younger than 2 who meet certain criteria.

Teens, adults, and older adults

Palivizumab isn’t used in adults. Several options are being investigated for adults of all ages, including vaccines.

FDA moves toward approval of RSV vaccines for adults older than 60

On February 28 and March 1, 2023, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Independent Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted to recommend approval of two RSV vaccines for use in adults older than 60.

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Most people make a full recovery from RSV in a week or two.

High risk groups and people with weakened immune systems can take longer to recover. In some cases, complications, such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia, may develop and may lead to lasting respiratory problems.

For some infants and older adults, an RSV infection may be fatal.

Is there a vaccine to protect against RSV?

There are no vaccines against RSV currently approved in the United States. Several are in development. On February 28, 2023, and March 1, 2023, the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted to recommend approval of two RSV vaccines for people older than 60.

What medications are used to treat or cure RSV?

RSV can’t be cured. Treatments focus on reducing symptoms and increasing comfort with things such as fever reducers and decongestants.

What age group gets sickest from RSV?

Infants and older adults are most at risk of developing a severe RSV infection. Without considering age, other high risk groups include people with preexisting heart and lung conditions.

RSV is a viral respiratory infection that’s usually mild but can become severe in certain people. High risk groups include babies, young children, and adults older than 60.

People with heart and lung problems are also at increased risk. If you fall into any of these categories, talk with a healthcare professional about steps you can take to protect yourself.