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 from developing if you have RSV.

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

Older adults are most at risk of a severe RSV infection. In fact, in any given year, RSV sickens about 5.5% of older adults, resulting in approximately 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths.

Let’s look at the symptoms of RSV in adults, complications that can arise, 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 aged 65 or older, are most at risk for severe RSV.

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

Additionally, as you get older, your respiratory muscles and diaphragm can 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, and you usually can’t distinguish RSV symptoms from those of the common cold. Typical symptoms include:

Symptoms of severe RSV infection

Signs of severe RSV infections in adults may include:

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

If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to get immediate medical attention.

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RSV can lead to serious complications in older adults and in medically vulnerable adults. 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 fatal.

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

The only way to know for sure that you have RSV 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.

Treatment 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 aren’t prescribed for RSV, but they may be prescribed if you develop a secondary bacterial infection.

In uncomplicated RSV cases, symptoms may last anywhere from 3 to 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 a 2022 study, hospitalized adults usually experience symptoms for about a week before entering the hospital. These adults then spent an additional 3 to 9 days in the hospital, often needing follow-up care once they were discharged.

Is there a vaccine to protect against RSV?

Although there’s currently no approved RSV vaccine for adults, scientists are getting closer to having a vaccine for RSV.

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Most adults who contract RSV typically have mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold. But, there are times when RSV can develop into a more serious illness.

Adults at greatest risk for RSV complications include adults who are 65 or older, those who are immunocompromised, or have a chronic lung or heart condition.

Symptoms of a more severe RSV infection 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 have noticed any of these symptoms.