Key Facts

  • RSV is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract infections.
  • RSV can be dangerous for certain high-risk adults.
  • Each year in the United States an estimated 60,000 – 120,000 older adults are hospitalized and 6,000 – 10,000 dies from RSV infection.

Understanding RSV in Adults

RSV is a common virus that you have undoubtably been sick with before.  You might not have known that you had RSV because without a lab test to confirm diagnosis, it is typically lumped together with other respiratory infections that cause cold-like symptoms.  It is possible to get RSV multiple times, even in the same year, because you do not develop complete immunity to it.

So, what’s the big deal?   RSV has the potential to make you really sick. Usually, as an adult, when you become ill with RSV you have mild cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, cough and a headache. But sometimes, and for some people, you can become so ill you need to be hospitalized. And each year in the United States thousands of older adults die of complications from RSV.

Three identified groups at high risk for severe RSV include:

  • Adults with chronic lung or heart disease
  • Adults with a weakened immune system
  • All older adults, especially if you are 65 years and older

RSV symptoms typically last from two to eight days though they can last longer, especially when the lead to other serious conditions such as:

  • A worsening of your asthma or COPD symptoms. 
    An RSV infection may cause you to have an asthma attack or COPD exacerbation, causing additional strain on your already compromised lungs.
  • Pneumonia.
    An infection of the lungs, pneumonia causes the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs to become inflamed and fill with fluid. This makes it harder for you to breathe and can become life-threatening.
  • Bronchiolitis.
    An infection of the lungs, bronchiolitis causes inflammation of the small airways (bronchial) in your lungs.
  • Congestive heart failure. 
    An RSV infection may cause more severe cardiac symptoms to occur.

Treating RSV in Adults

There is no specific treatment for RSV infection, so fluids and rest are the best advice for mild symptoms. If you have COPD or asthma, be sure to maintain use of prescribed medications to reduce breathing difficulties and speak with your healthcare provider if you think your medications might need to be adjusted.

When to Seek Emergency Care

There are some emergency signs that indicate you are experiencing a severe respiratory illness, and these require prompt medical attention. Shortness of breath, a fever, bluish tint to your skin, wheezing, worsening cough.

If you are admitted to the hospital, you will likely be put on IV fluids if you are dehydrated. You may be put on supplemental oxygen to improve your oxygen saturation. Antibiotics may be given if you develop a secondary infection such as bacterial pneumonia.

Recovering from RSV as an Adult

As you age, your body naturally loses some of the disease-fighting abilities it had. This means it may take you longer to recover from respiratory infections like RSV. It’s important to check in with your healthcare provider about any new or lingering symptoms you are experiencing.

Page last updated: January 9, 2023

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