RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is common in babies and young toddlers. But it can also affect older kids and adults. RSV infection can be especially dangerous for older people with certain health problems.
What Is RSV?
It’s a virus that affects your nose, throat, lungs, and breathing passages. Most children get it by the time they’re 2 years old. In healthy older kids and adults, respiratory syncytial virus symptoms are like the ones for the common cold – like sneezing and a runny or stuffy nose.
How Do You Get RSV?
Generally, it spreads through the air when someone with it sneezes or coughs near you. You can also get it if these droplets land on a surface – like a doorknob or table – that you touch and then rub your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Respiratory syncytial virus usually goes around in the fall through spring – just like the flu does.
People who have RSV can usually spread it for 3-8 days. But babies and some people with lower immunity can be infectious as long as a month.
Even after you’re infected, your body doesn’t become immune to RSV. That means you can get it again.
Why Are Seniors at More Risk?
The CDC estimates that more than 175,000 people 65 and older are hospitalized every year and 14,000 die from RSV infections. It’s more dangerous for older people because your immune system naturally gets weaker as you age. The muscles that support breathing aren’t as strong, either. That affects your lungs’ ability to expand. Older people also don’t produce as much protective mucus as younger people do.
If you have ongoing health problems, you may not be able to fight off RSV as well as other people.
- Cancer or its treatments like chemotherapy
- Organ transplants
- Any other condition or medication that weakens your immune system
- Heart or lung diseases like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Serious problems that can happen if you’re infected with RSV include:
- Pneumonia, a lung infection
- Bronchiolitis, which is swelling of the small airways that lead to the lungs
- Congestive heart failure, which is when your heart struggles to pump blood to vital organs
- A worsening of COPD or asthma
Call your doctor right away if you have these symptoms, which could be a sign of serious complications:
- Bad cough
- A hard time breathing (you may find it uncomfortable to lie down and prefer to sit up)
- Blue tint to the skin because of low oxygen
People who live in assisted living or in nursing facilities may be at greater risk of getting infected because RSV spreads easily. And if you live in a home with young school-aged kids or those who attend child care, you could be more likely to get it because it’s so common in kids.
How Is RSV Diagnosed?
Your doctor will diagnose respiratory syncytial virus with a physical exam and a medical history. You may get a nasal swab test to look for the virus especially if your symptoms are bad.
If you are having serious complications, you’ll likely get:
- A chest X-ray
- Blood and urine tests
How Is RSV Treated?
There’s no specific treatment. Your doctor probably will tell you to take over-the-counter medicine to lessen fever and pain. They may suggest a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal sprays to help you breathe.
It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids like water or juice.
If you have to go to the hospital, you’ll probably get help to make breathing easier. These can include:
- A breathing tube or ventilator (in very bad cases)
How Can I Prevent RSV?
Later in 2023 two RSV vaccine options should be available to help prevent severe illness in older adults. A vaccine for pregnant people is expected to be presented to the FDA for approval as well.
With or without a vaccine, you should take these precautions to prevent infection with respiratory syncytial virus and stay healthy:
- Wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds.
- Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer in case you can’t wash your hands easily.
- Don’t touch your face (especially if your hands are dirty).
- Don’t share forks or spoons with others, shake hands, or kiss if you are sick or when they are.
- Clean things you (and other people) touch a lot, like doorknobs, remote controls, or computers. RSV can live on surfaces for hours.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and throw it away to protect others.
- Stay home if you’re not feeling well.
COVID or RSV?
Symptoms of COVID-19 and RSV are similar because they’re both viruses that set up shop in your respiratory system. It can be hard to know exactly what you have. Your doctor may suggest a COVID test to rule that out.
RSV infections can weaken your immunity and put you at higher risk of getting COVID. If you get both at the same time, it can be especially dangerous. Make sure you’re up to date on your COVID vaccinations to protect yourself from serious disease.
Don’t forget to get your annual flu shot, too.
Photo Credit: trilocks / Getty Images
American Lung Association: “Learn About Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).”
CDC: “RSV in Older Adults and Adults with Chronic Medical Conditions.”
Drugs and Aging: “Respiratory syncytial virus infection in elderly adults.”
Mayo Clinic: “Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).”
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: “Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV),” “Respiratory Syncytial Virus in Older Adults: A Hidden Annual Epidemic.”
National Library of Medicine: “Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections.”