Oct. 11, 2023 – Recent progress in the field of immunology has given health care providers and their patients new tools to combat a potentially deadly respiratory illness that largely affects older adults. And no, it’s not COVID-19.
Public health officials estimate that almost every American will contract at least a mild form of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) during their lifetime. The illness can be life-threatening for infants and toddlers, and it can also be dangerous for older adults.
Then, in July, the FDA approved a vaccine for infants and for expectant mothers at weeks 32 through 36 of pregnancy. Among children younger than age 5, between 58,000 and 80,000 hospitalizations occur every year.
Medical professionals strongly urge adults over 60 with health conditions to get the RSV vaccine as we head into what’s commonly called cold and flu season, but now includes COVID and RSV.
“I think it's a no-brainer for someone who has any kind of immunocompromised status or has chronic medical conditions,” said Tom Yadegar, MD, a pulmonologist and medical director of the intensive care unit at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Los Angeles. Patients with heart and lung conditions, liver or kidney diseases, diabetes, asthma, and COPD are prime candidates for the vaccine. “The RSV viral infection can be quite serious, leading to hospitalization and also death.”
Yadegar said that half of his office appointments involve discussing the vaccines for RSV, COVID-19, and the flu.
Awareness and understanding of RSV have increased in recent years. During the COVID pandemic, health care providers started doing more respiratory tests, said Yadegar. Advancements in medicine allowed experts to better determine what was a common cold and what was RSV.
Much like the common cold, RSV generally causes mild symptoms that clear up in a week or two. But, much like the flu, for those who are older and less healthy, RSV can present significant risks.
The vaccine offers no serious risks, and reactions include the common redness and pain where you got the shot. Anyone who has had an allergic reaction to a vaccine should consult their doctor.
The adult RSV vaccine is between 83% and 89% effective, depending on the maker.
“I strongly encourage them to avail themselves of this vaccine,” said Paul Auwaerter, MD, the clinical director for infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, of patients 60 and older who have health conditions.
He classifies RSV as “one of the big three” respiratory illnesses, behind COVID and the flu.
“It’s still a preventable disease potentially that can be impacted by the immunization, so I strongly recommend it,” Auwaerter said.