Everything You Need to Know About RSV

Everything You Need to Know About RSV

Every year in the fall, health experts raise awareness of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections in infants and toddlers. But RSV also affects older adults and can lead to severe symptoms or death.

RSV is spread through contact with someone who is infected. The infection spreads when:

  • An infected person sneezes or coughs.
  • You kiss the face of someone with the infection, including a child or a baby.
  • You touch a surface which has the virus on it and then touch your face before washing or sanitizing your hands. This includes surfaces such as doorknobs, cribs or counter tops.

RSV can survive on hard surfaces for many hours and on soft surfaces for shorter periods. Soft surfaces include hands and tissues.

Contagious Periods

People who have RSV are generally contagious for three to eight days and will usually be contagious for a day or two prior to showing any symptoms. People with weakened immune systems and infants can continue to spread the virus for up to four weeks after they stop showing any symptoms. It is vitally important to practice good hand hygiene at all times to help stop the spread of RSV.

Hand Hygiene

Frequent hand washing and using alcohol-based hand-sanitizers can help prevent transmission.

Wearing a proper medical mask when out or around others can also help prevent the transmission.

What are the Symptoms of RSV?

The virus can start out like a cold, as an upper respiratory illness, then move to the chest. Wheezing can be a symptom, especially for adults with a chronic lung disease, such as COPD or asthma. Symptoms of RSV include cough, shortness of breath, runny nose and nasal congestion and sometimes fever.

Each year in the United States, RSV leads to approximately:

  • 2.1 million outpatient (non-hospitalization) visits among children younger than 5 years old.
  • 58,000-80,000 hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old.
  • 60,000-120,000 hospitalizations among adults 65 years and older.
  • 6,000-10,000 deaths among adults 65 years and older.
  • 100–300 deaths in children younger than 5 years old.

RSV in Older Adults and Adults with Chronic Medical Conditions

RSV infections can be dangerous for certain adults. Each year, it is estimated that between 60,000-120,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized and 6,000-10,000 of them die due to RSV infection. Adults at the highest risk for severe RSV infection include:

  • Older adults — especially those 65 years and older
  • Adults with chronic heart or lung disease
  • Adults with a weakened immune system

Severe RSV Infection

When an adult gets an RSV infection, they typically have mild cold-like symptoms, but some may develop a lung infection or pneumonia.

RSV can sometimes lead to worsening of serious conditions such as:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a chronic disease of the lungs that makes it hard to breathe.
  • Congestive heart failure – when the heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen through the body.

Older adults who get very sick from RSV may need to be hospitalized and it can be fatal for some. Older adults are at greater risk than young adults for serious complications from RSV because immune systems weaken as we age.

“After several years of hearing about nothing but COVID-19, we now have a different respiratory virus that is causing a lot of problems," said Douglas Drevets, M.D., DTM&H, FIDSA, Chief of Infectious Diseases at OU Health. "RSV has been known as a real problem in young children, but more recently we have appreciated how bad it can be in adults, particularly older adults with underlying medical problems. Unlike COVID-19 or influenza, there is no vaccine available for RSV and there are no antiviral medications that can be used to stop it. Thus, supportive care of infected patients and preventing transmission are the cornerstones of care.”

When to Get Help

If you, or a person you care for has RSV and is experiencing difficulties breathing or with dehydration, it is important to seek urgent medical assistance. Older adults especially may require additional oxygen, IV fluids, or intubation with a mechanical ventilation machine. Hospitalization usually only lasts a few days.

How to Treat Non-Serious RSV at Home

Fever and pain can be managed with over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Adults can take aspirin but do not give it to children unless instructed by a pediatrician.

Stay hydrated to prevent dehydration and rest.

If you have questions, talk to your doctor. You can also count out the expert services provided at OU Health's emergency and urgent care locations. Older adults especially may require additional oxygen, IV fluids, or intubation with a mechanical ventilation machine. Hospitalization usually only lasts a few days.