Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is an infection that can be passed from children to adults. While most healthy adults with RSV infection usually can be treated at home, older infected adults may be hospitalized if they require additional medical support for breathing, eating, and drinking. This is true for infants younger than 6 months old, as well.
Find out more about RSV in adults, including RSV complications, how long you are contagious with RSV, your treatment options, and how to protect high-risk, vulnerable adults from RSV.
Table of Contents
When Do Adults Get RSV?
Adults can get RSV after being exposed to the virus causing the infection. This viral transmission of RSV can occur when:
- A person with RSV infection coughs or sneezes.
- Virus droplets from a cough or sneeze get into your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- You have direct contact with the virus (e.g., you kiss someone who is contagious with RSV).
- You have indirect contact with the virus (e.g., you touch a surface that has the virus on it, like a doorknob or tabletop and then touch your face before washing your hands).
How to Tell If You Have RSV or a Cold
If you’re not sure whether your symptoms are RSV or a cold, testing can be done to confirm the virus responsible. However, your healthcare provider may make a diagnosis of RSV based on your symptoms and medical history alone. If testing does occur, it is typically done with a nasal swab to check for signs of viral activity.
At-Home Testing for RSV in Adults
If you want to know if you have an RSV infection as an adult, you can get an at-home testing kit without a prescription. These tests check for RSV, flu, and COVID-19 using one sample from a nasal swab. After you collect your sample, you’ll send it to a designated lab for testing.
Complications of RSV Symptoms in High-Risk Adults
Complications of severe RSV symptoms in high-risk adults include pneumonia. People in this group include:
- Adults who are 65 years and older
- Adults with chronic lung or heart disease
- Adults with compromised immune systems or immune system disorders
Mild vs. Serious RSV Symptoms in Adults
Typically, people infected with RSV experience mild, cold-like symptoms, but this depends on their personal health history and current condition. Mild symptoms include runny nose, coughing, appetite loss, wheezing, sneezing, and fever. Serious symptoms lead some to wonder if RSV is deadly. There are cases in which RSV infection has progressed to serious lung infections and pneumonia, which can cause death.
Having an RSV infection can make existing chronic conditions worse, including the following:
Complications of severe RSV in high-risk adults can be dangerous and may require hospitalization.
Prevalence and Risk
Bear in mind that a mild infection for healthy adults can be potentially deadly for someone who is at high risk. Some 60,000–160,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized each year due to RSV infection, and an estimated 6,000–10,000 of them die due to complications of RSV infection.
How Long Are People Contagious With RSV?
When infected with RSV, you usually are contagious for three to eight days after symptoms start. However, you can be contagious up to a day or two before showing symptoms. High-risk and vulnerable people can remain contagious for up to four weeks after symptoms resolve.
Treatment: RSV in Adults
Most cases of RSV in adults will resolve independently without treatment within a week or two. Use over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications or fever reducers for RSV symptom management. Adults hospitalized with RSV infection will receive additional treatment.
Treatment for severe RSV in adults ensures the patient can breathe, drink, and eat adequately and safely. These treatments can include:
- Oxygen therapy
- Intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent or treat dehydration
- Mechanical ventilation or breathing support
- Tube feeding if swallowing isn’t possible
- Suction of mucus to clear airways
How to Protect High-Risk Adults from RSV
There is no vaccine to protect high-risk adults from RSV infection. However, there are steps you can take to help protect high-risk adults in your family and community. These methods of protection are geared toward reducing the risk of spreading viral infection.
Ways to prevent the spread of RSV infection and help reduce risk to high-risk adults include:
- Practice good hand hygiene by washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds often or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your face, including rubbing your eyes, wiping your nose, or touching your mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact, including kissing, sharing eating utensils, or drinking from cups of people with cold or flu-like symptoms.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve. Throw tissues away or wash shirts as soon as possible.
- Disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as toys, doorknobs, and mobile devices to remove potential droplets with RSV germs.
- If possible, stay home from work, school, and public areas when you are sick to help prevent the spread of germs.
RSV infection can be passed to adults and cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe. RSV is contagious for several days after symptoms start, but in persons with reduced immune system functioning, the illness can still be spread for some weeks after symptoms resolve. Older adults and adults with compromised immune systems or coexisting health conditions like asthma or heart disease are considered vulnerable to infection and health complications from RSV.
You can test for RSV at home or at a healthcare provider's office. Treatment beyond OTC therapies usually is not necessary, unless in severe cases in which hospitalization is required to help a person breathe, eat, or get fluids. Preventing the spread of germs with proper hygiene and avoiding contact with people infected with RSV is recommended to help protect high-risk adults.
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