It’s easy to confuse respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) with a common cold. Both conditions cause similar symptoms, such as congestion, runny nose, coughing, and fever. With a cold, you’ll usually feel better after a week or so of drinking extra fluids and getting plenty of rest. But, RSV can worsen quickly and become a greater health risk to certain groups of people, especially adults ages 65 and older.
“For the majority of people, RSV is a mild infection, but it can become more serious when you’re older or if you have any kind of chronic medical issues or certain immunocompromising conditions,” explains Prathit Kulkarni, MD, an assistant professor of infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. It’s these various underlying health concerns that can cause RSV to progress to something very dangerous, he says.
People 65 and older are more affected by RSV due to the body’s diminishing ability to fight off illness. As you get older, your immune system weakens, says Dr. Kulkarni, making it harder to protect yourself from foreign invaders, including bacteria, parasites, and viruses, such as RSV. And, if you’re dealing with a chronic health issue — whether you’re older or not — your body may have a harder time resisting this particular respiratory infection.
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Top Health Conditions That Can Contribute to RSV Complications
It’s important to be aware of the following health concerns (many related to the lungs and heart), which can worsen a case of RSV or vice versa:
- Asthma An RSV infection can bring on a more severe asthma attack, which can include wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, and severe tightness in the chest.
- COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an illness in the lungs that makes it harder to breathe — and a risk factor for serious RSV.
- Pulmonary fibrosis This disease is the result of scarred or damaged lung tissue. Pulmonary fibrosis creates lung tissue that’s stiff and thick, making it hard to breathe.
- Asbestosis Inhaling asbestos can lead to asbestosis, and RSV can make it worse.
- Pneumonitis Not to be confused with pneumonia, which is an infection that affects the lung’s air sacs, pneumonitis is a term for general inflammation in the lungs. It can be caused by irritants, allergies, germs, medications, and inhaling chemicals such as bleach.
- Congestive heart failure When the heart isn’t able to pump enough blood and oxygen, this condition can cause shortness of breath, weakness, and an irregular heartbeat.
- Angina This heart-related health issue causes pain in the chest, arm, jaw, or stomach when blood and oxygen supply to the heart is restricted or disrupted.
- Arrhythmia This is a too-fast, too-slow, or irregular heartbeat.
- Valve disease When your heart’s valves don’t open and close correctly, blood flow is compromised, leading to breathing trouble, fatigue, chest pain, and dizziness.
- Immunocompromising conditions There are a number of health concerns that affect the body’s immune system and its ability to stave off infection and illness. Among these are cancer treatment (chemotherapy), HIV, lupus, smoking, and taking medications after an organ transplant, such as a kidney or heart.
Talk to your doctor about your risk of severe RSV infection and related health complications, as well as what to do if you contract the virus.
Signs to Seek Emergency RSV Care
Whether you’re high risk or not, it’s a good idea to learn the signs of severe RSV, which include:
- Gasping for breath
- Worsening cough
- Bluish skin (a sign of a lack of oxygen)
If you experience these RSV symptoms, it’s important to seek emergency care. You may be admitted to the hospital, where you’ll likely receive treatments such as intravenous fluids, supplemental oxygen, and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections like bacterial pneumonia.
There’s no exact treatment for the virus. Like many other respiratory illnesses, prevention is the best medicine. The good news? After years of research, in May 2023 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first RSV vaccine — for adults 60 and older — to help prevent infection, and clinical trials for other new drugs are under way.
If you develop a mild RSV infection, you’ll be encouraged to rest and drink plenty of fluids to help your body fight the infection. You should also continue to take prescribed medications to treat an underlying condition and call your physician right away if symptoms worsen.
Most people recover from RSV on their own at home, without medical intervention. But, as you age, it may take longer to recover from an illness. Be sure to check with your doctor if you experience any lingering symptoms.