RSV poses health risks in adults and kids alike — and now there's a vaccine

Senior man being comforted by his wife while coughing

If you’re over the age of 2, you’ve probably had respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at some point in your life. RSV is a common virus of the upper respiratory tract that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, so you probably didn’t realize you even had it.

However, in young children, older adults and people with chronic health conditions, RSV can lead to serious illness and even death. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV leads to 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations in children under age 5 each year in the United States. In adults 65 and older, that number rises to 60,000 to 120,000.

That's why it's important for adults 60 years and older to get the RSV vaccine, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2023. The recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that any adult 60 or older can receive a single dose of the vaccine (brand name Arexvy) and that it can be given at the same time as other vaccines, such as the flu shot.

'Do I really need a flu shot?' and other flu vaccine questions answered

RSV season normally starts in September to November, peaking in December to February and ending in mid-April to mid-May. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted typical RSV patterns starting in 2020, so RSV’s seasonality was more unpredictable. In 2023, experts are cautiously optimistic that as people take advantage of the new RSV vaccine, the impact of RSV this season will be less severe.

What else to know to help prevent RSV:

1 RSV peaks during the colder months of the year.

There are many viruses circulating during this time of year and we always see an uptick in RSV cases in the fall, winter and spring.

2 RSV symptoms mimic other common viruses.

Initial RSV symptoms are pretty nondescript. They include congestion, runny nose, dry cough, sore throat, low-grade fever, headache and wheezing. Most people think they have a cold or the flu. If you spike a fever, experience shortness of breath or have severe wheezing, you’ll need to visit your doctor.

3 There is no specific treatment for RSV.

Unlike with the flu, there’s no specific treatment for RSV in adults. Antibiotics and antiviral medications won’t help. But eligible adults can get an RSV vaccine now to prevent illness.

I usually recommend plenty of fluids to thin secretions, acetaminophen (Tylenol) to lower fever, and patience. Mild cases of RSV usually run their course in one to two weeks.

4 RSV can cause serious illnesses.

RSV can lead to serious lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, because the virus causes secretions in the lungs. Young babies, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems or chronic illnesses, such as lung or heart disease, can develop more serious infections because they can’t compensate for the mucus or fluid in their lungs. In young children, their small airways narrow with bronchiolitis, making it hard for them to breathe. Adults may have difficultly coughing up the thick mucus. If hospitalization is required, patients may receive supportive care and be placed on oxygen or ventilation to help improve breathing.

5 Good hand hygiene can prevent RSV.

RSV is spread through coughing, sneezing and coming into contact with surfaces that have the RSV virus on them and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. To prevent RSV, wash your hands often, cough and sneeze into your elbow, avoid sick people, don’t share towels or toothbrushes, and routinely clean high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs and countertops.

Need medical care quickly, but don’t need an emergency department?

Ohio State Advanced Urgent Care provides convenient, walk-in care for common conditions and serious, non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries — no appointment needed.

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