Although RSV causes mild, cold-like symptoms in most adults, it can cause severe symptoms in some high risk adults. Knowing what to look out for can help prevent complications if you have RSV.

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Most of us think of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as a seasonal virus mainly affecting children. But RSV affects adults as well, and in some situations, it can lead to more serious symptoms and complications.

Older adults have a higher risk of more severe RSV. In fact, in any given year, the CDC estimates that RSV causes up to 160,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths in older adults.

Let’s look at the symptoms of RSV in adults, complications that can occur, risk factors, and how to get treatment and care.

In most cases, adults experience RSV as a mild cold and cough. But some adults can become seriously ill from RSV and experience complications. Older adults, especially those ages 65 or older, are most at risk of developing severe RSV.

Part of the reason that older adults are more likely to experience severe RSV is that your immune system becomes less robust as you age. This makes it more difficult for your body to fight off infections.

As you get older, your respiratory muscles and diaphragm can also weaken, and the protective mucus levels in your lungs decrease.

In addition to age, other risk factors for severe RSV infection include:

In most adults, RSV feels like a mild cold. You usually can’t distinguish RSV symptoms from those of the common cold.

Typical RSV symptoms include:

Symptoms of severe RSV infection

Signs of severe RSV in adults may include:

  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • a worsening cough that includes severe wheezing
  • a racing heartbeat
  • extreme exhaustion
  • high fever
  • disorientation
  • dehydration
  • a bluish tint to your extremities due to lack of oxygen

If you have any of these symptoms, get immediate medical attention.

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RSV can lead to serious complications in older adults and other adults who have a higher risk of severe RSV.

The most common complication of RSV in adults is pneumonia, a lung infection where the air sacs in your lungs fill with fluid and become inflamed. Untreated pneumonia can be dangerous.

But pneumonia isn’t the only possible complication. RSV can also worsen other chronic health conditions, such as:

The only way to know you have RSV for sure is to get tested.

People with mild cold symptoms usually aren’t tested for RSV. But if you have more severe symptoms, your doctor may test you for the virus using a rapid diagnostic or PCR test. This involves taking a nasal sample and testing it to determine what type of virus you have.

Treatments for mild cases of RSV are supportive because, in most cases, you just need to let the virus run its course. Treatment for mild RSV symptoms may include:

If you have a severe case of RSV, you might need:

Antibiotics are not prescribed for RSV but may be prescribed if you develop a secondary bacterial infection.

In uncomplicated RSV cases, symptoms may last anywhere from 3–8 days or up to 2 weeks. It’s common for some symptoms, like a lingering cough, to last longer.

If you have a complicated case of RSV, your symptoms may last longer and require further medical care. For example, if you’re hospitalized with RSV complications, you may need to spend a few days or more in the hospital.

According to 2022 research, hospitalized adults usually experience symptoms for about a week before entering the hospital. These adults then spent an additional 3–9 days in the hospital, often needing follow-up care once they were discharged.

Is there a vaccine to protect against RSV?

In 2023, the FDA approved two new RSV vaccines for adults ages 60 and older: Arexvy and Abrysvo.

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Most adults who get RSV typically have mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold. But RSV can develop into a more serious illness in some people.

Adults at greatest risk for RSV complications include adults who are ages 65 or older, people who are considered immunocompromised, or anyone with a chronic lung or heart condition.

Symptoms of a more severe case of RSV include shortness of breath, a worsening wheezing cough, disorientation, and a bluish tint to the extremities. It’s important to get immediate medical attention if you notice any of these symptoms.