What is Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV)? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Elderly man wrapped in a blanket coughs into his hand. He appears ill. Text reads: Can adults get respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)? Almost all children will have an RSV infection by two years old. Infection can be dangerous for older and immunocompromised adults.

Can Adults Get Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)? Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that affects the nose, throat, and lungs. Healthy children and adults may experience cold-like symptoms that typically last up to two weeks. RSV is a highly contagious virus; it's estimated that most children will have been infected by their second birthday.

Is it common for adults to get RSV?

Almost all children will have an RSV infection by age two. While common, this respiratory infection can become particularly concerning for infants, older adults, and immunocompromised individuals. In fact, adults account for up to 120,000 hospitalizations a year in the United States, resulting in up to 10,000 deaths.

RSV infection can be particularly concerning for individuals with a weakened immunity or older adults with a lower respiratory reserve or lung capacity due to underlying heart or lung conditions. Falling ill from infection can exacerbate symptoms for adults with asthma, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

When is RSV season?

Respiratory syncytial virus infection typically leads to approximately 2.1 million outpatient visits and 80,000 hospitalizations among children five and under. Respiratory syncytial virus usually circulates in the fall and winter when more people spend time in closer quarters. The closure of public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a temporary decrease in cases.

Now RSV cases, along with cold and flu season and the spread of COVID-19, are putting strain on hospitals nationwide. Though most common in children, adults account for up to 120,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths a year in the United States.

Though cases may have peaked this RSV season, knowing the symptoms can help stop the virus from spreading further.

Young woman blows into a facial tissue. She appears ill. Text reads: What are the first signs of RSV? Respiratory syncytial virus infection symptoms include: Runny nose, sneezing, loss of appetite, wheezing, coughing, and fever.

What are the first signs of RSV?

It can be difficult to determine whether symptoms are indicative of RSV or other respiratory disease. In some cases, a doctor may want to test for RSV based on previous medical history. Mild RSV cases typically present with cold-like symptoms including:

The RSV timeline in adults is about a week or two. Symptoms like wheezing, barking cough, or trouble breathing due to inflammation in the respiratory tract may be signs that the illness has progressed into something more serious.

How do you treat RSV?

In most cases, infection is mild and most symptoms can be treated at home. The key to promoting symptom relief is to prioritize your overall wellness and hygiene routine.

While researchers are currently working on developing new solutions, there is not yet an RSV vaccine. In the meantime, there are a few key things you can do at home to manage your symptoms:

Fever and pain management

Over-the-counter pain relief products like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can alleviate fever, body aches, and other pains.

Stay hydrated

Dehydration is a common problem among affected individuals. Promote your body's natural moisture-creating processes to keep as comfortable as possible. Avoid the risk of dehydration by drinking water, warm liquids like soups and teas, and beverages containing electrolytes.

Humidify your air

Use a room humidifier or opt for a hot shower; breathing in steam can ease cough and congestion.

Clean and moisturize your nose

Incorporate nasal rinsing into your daily routine. Manage congestion by clearing irritants, viruses, and blockages from the nasal passages. Use a moisturizing nasal saline solution for a comfortable nasal hygiene routine.

It's important to focus on therapies that promote a healthy respiratory system. The at-home therapies you choose should help alleviate pain, keep your body hydrated, and eliminate the spread of illness.

RSV Prevention

The key to preventing the spread of respiratory illness is good hygiene and taking precautions to preserve your respiratory health.

Keep clean with regular hygiene practices. Wash your hands with soap and water.

  • Avoid close contact with others.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with your arm; avoid coughing into your hands.
  • Clean high-touch areas of the home.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke.

In addition to these practices, consider adopting a regular nasal hygiene routine. Respiratory viruses enter the body through the nose by breathing in infected droplets. Rinsing your nose with saline nasal drops in a nasal nebulizer can help reduce exposure to harmful particles that are trapped in the nose.

What happens if RSV is left untreated?

Ideally, for most individuals without heart or lung complications, the duration of RSV is comparable to the common cold. Some infections, though, can lead to serious conditions like pneumonia or bronchiolitis. If you or your child begin to experience difficulty breathing, dehydration, or worsening symptoms, it's recommended to visit a doctor.

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