RSV is common in young children, but adults can also get it. In older adults and adults with weakened immune systems, an RSV infection can be severe and sometimes fatal.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that causes a highly contagious respiratory infection. While it’s common in young children, adults can also get RSV.
In some adults, like older adults and those with weakened immune systems, RSV can be serious and sometimes fatal. Some people may require hospitalization.
Learn more about the symptoms of RSV in adults, how to relieve symptoms, when to see a doctor, and how to prevent infection.
When an adult gets RSV, they often have cold-like symptoms that are mild. Symptoms may appear 4 to 6 days from the day of infection.
Often symptoms will appear in stages rather than occurring all at once. Possible symptoms of RSV include:
- runny nose
- sore throat
- decreased appetite
Some adults who develop RSV can get very sick with complications such as lung infection or pneumonia. Older adults may require hospitalization. In some cases, RSV may be fatal.
Older adults are at greater risk from complications due to RSV because our immune systems weaken as we age.
RSV can be dangerous for older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every year between
Adults at greatest risk for severe RSV infection include those who:
- have chronic heart disease
- have chronic lung disease
- have a weak immune system
- are ages 65 and older
Having RSV can also cause other conditions to worsen. Conditions affected may include:
- congestive heart failure
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Symptoms will typically last from 2 to 8 days. They may last longer if RSV causes an underlying condition to worsen or causes a complication like pneumonia.
There’s currently no specific treatment for RSV, although multiple vaccines are being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are expected to be approved later in 2023. Vaccines from Pfizer and GSK would specifically protect older adults over 60.
Without treatment, many RSV infections will clear up within 1 to 2 weeks. Those with mild symptoms can manage their infection at home.
To relieve symptoms:
- Use over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen to manage fever and pain.
- Drink enough fluids to avoid dehydration.
- Get plenty of rest.
People with COPD or asthma who also have RSV should ensure they continue using prescribed medication as normal. This will help reduce breathing difficulties.
Some people with RSV, like older adults, may require hospitalization due to their RSV infection. This may be because they’re having difficulties with breathing or become dehydrated.
In severe cases of RSV, a person hospitalized with the infection may need:
- additional oxygen
- IV fluids if they’re having trouble eating or drinking
- intubation with mechanical ventilation to help with breathing
Typically, those who are hospitalized will only need to be in the hospital for a few days to treat RSV.
RSV in adults often causes mild symptoms, but in some people, it can cause serious illness that may be life threatening.
If you’re experiencing symptoms that indicate a severe illness, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Some symptoms that suggest you should see a doctor include:
- shortness of breath and other breathing difficulties
- a cough that is progressively getting worse
- a bluish tint to the skin
RSV is a highly contagious infection. In the United States, RSV typically begins to circulate in the fall and reaches a peak in the winter, but it’s also possible to get RSV in the spring.
RSV can be spread between people through:
- direct contact with someone who has RSV (like kissing)
- touching surfaces that have the virus, then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose
If a person has RSV, they can pass on the virus for 3 to 8 days. However, in some cases, people can pass it on for up to 4 weeks.
Those who are at high risk of RSV and the people who interact with them should take precautions to keep everyone healthy. These precautions include:
- Wash your hands regularly: When washing hands, use soap and water, and wash them for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based sanitizer can be a substitute.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick: Avoid kissing and sharing utensils or cups with people who have cold symptoms.
- Don’t touch your face: Keep your hands away from the mouth, nose, and eyes unless you have washed your hands.
- Cover coughs and sneezes: Use a tissue or the inside of your elbow to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Always throw the tissue away after.
- Clean surfaces: High-touch objects like mobile phones and doorknobs should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. RSV can live on surfaces for hours.
- Stay home if you are sick: If you have symptoms, staying home from work and school and avoiding public areas will help stop the spread of RSV in the community.
Currently, there’s no vaccine for RSV, but research is underway to develop one. Researchers are also working to develop antiviral drugs to help fight the virus.
RSV is a virus that causes a highly contagious infection. It’s common in young children, but adults can also get RSV. Some RSV symptoms in adults include coughing, sneezing, sore throat, and fever.
Some adults, like those over 65 and those with a weakened immune system, are at risk of severe infection due to RSV. These people may require hospitalization if infected.
No specific treatment is available for RSV, but mild symptoms can be managed at home. Taking precautions like washing hands regularly and avoiding contact with sick people can help avoid infection.