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Chaunie Brusie, R.N.

Chaunie Brusie is a mom of five, a native Michigander and a registered nurse turned writer and editor. She specializes in health and medical writing. Her work has appeared everywhere from The New York Times to Glamour to Parents magazine.

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Illustration of Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV Hansen

FAQs About RSV in Older Adults and Infants

RSV is nothing to sneeze at. Here’s what you need to know about this common virus and how to stay protected.

Your Health

Summer's here and you're probably not thinking about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV. But the time to think about it is before RSV season is officially upon us. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV season typically starts in the fall and peaks in the winter, just in time for holiday gatherings and cold weather getaways. But there's no reason to let RSV ruin your plans if you take simple precautions to help prevent the spread of RSV, like good hand hygiene and vaccination.

Here's what you need to know about this common virus, how long RSV is contagious, what the complications can be, and how to prevent RSV in those at the highest risk — older adults and infants.

Who is at high risk for severe RSV?

In most adults, the virus causes cold symptoms that are usually mild. However, RSV can be dangerous for certain at-risk groups, including:

  • Babies
  • People over age 60
  • Adults with chronic lung and kidney disease
  • Adults with weakened immune systems
  • Adults who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities

RSV can be especially dangerous in pregnant women because they can pass the virus to their baby and have a risk of RSV-related complications, such as pneumonia, sepsis and respiratory failure.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends getting a maternal RSV vaccine if you are between 32 and 36 weeks pregnant during the high-risk months of September through January. The high-risk months for RSV can be different depending on where you live. Check with your OB-GYN for your specific criteria.

What are the symptoms of RSV in adults?

RSV is often mistaken for a cold because the symptoms of RSV are similar. RSV symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Appetite changes
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing

What symptoms of RSV need immediate medical attention?

Symptoms of RSV generally peak on days three through five of being sick. If anyone with RSV has the following symptoms, emergency medical care should be sought immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fast breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Grunting
  • Faster rate of breathing
  • Blue color to skin, fingernails or lips
  • No interest in nursing or bottle-feeding (in babies or toddlers)

How is RSV spread?

Like many respiratory viruses, RSV is spread through droplets from your nose or mouth. Someone can become infected by being in close contact with a person infected by RSV or even through touching objects that have droplets with the virus on them.

RSV can also live on hard surfaces — like doorknobs or tables — for hours, but it can't survive as long on soft tissues, like your hands.

In order to help prevent the spread of the virus, you can take simple precautions, such as:

  • Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick and when you are sick
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze
  • Clean surfaces that are touched frequently, like doorknobs
  • Get vaccinated if you are eligible

How long does it take to get sick if you're exposed to RSV?

It typically takes two to eight days to come down with RSV symptoms after exposure. And once someone is sick with RSV, the virus takes three to eight days to run its course.

How long is RSV contagious?

People who are actively sick with RSV are most contagious during the three-to-eight-day time frame that they have symptoms, as well as one to two days before showing symptoms. However, some infants and people with weakened immune systems can continue to spread RSV for as long as four weeks, even long after they've stopped having symptoms.

How is RSV treated?

Most cases of RSV can be treated by staying home and resting to let the virus run its course in about one to two weeks. Like other viruses, if no complications develop, someone can treat RSV by resting and drinking lots of fluids.

Symptoms such as fever and discomfort can be treated with age-appropriate medications, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Cool-mist humidifiers and nasal saline spray can also be used for symptoms like congestion and runny noses.

If you have trouble breathing or become severely dehydrated, hospitalization may be required. Most times, hospitalization is only needed for a few days and can require treatment like an IV for fluids and oxygen support. In rare and serious cases, mechanical ventilation may be needed to take over someone's breathing.

What are the serious health problems that can result from RSV?

RSV is dangerous for certain groups of older adults, especially adults with chronic health conditions or anyone living in an assisted care facility. RSV can also lead to other medical conditions like worsening COPD and asthma, bronchiolitis, pneumonia and congestive heart failure.

How can you protect yourself and your family from getting RSV?

The first and primary way you can help avoid spreading or becoming infected with RSV is to practice basic health strategies such as:

  • Washing your hands
  • Staying home when you or your children are sick
  • Avoiding crowded gatherings during RSV season
  • Staying up to date on recommended immunizations for your family

There are also RSV-specific immunization and protection treatments available for certain groups of people. For instance, some infants and toddlers are eligible for RSV antibody products that can help protect them from severe RSV. Pregnant women may be eligible for the maternal RSV vaccine, and adults 60 and older may be eligible for vaccination as well.

Who should get the vaccine to prevent RSV?

During pregnancy

The CDC recommends that pregnant people who are between 32 and 36 weeks pregnant during RSV season (which varies depending on where you live) either get vaccinated themselves to protect their baby when it's born, or have the baby receive a monoclonal antibody shot soon after birth.

Getting vaccinated during pregnancy can help provide up to two weeks of protection for the baby after birth.

As adults

People over the age of 60 and those with underlying and chronic health conditions are eligible for one of two RSV vaccinations for adults, RSVPreF3 (Arexvy) or RSVpreF (Abrysvo). Past RSV infections or vaccines do not provide future immunity for adults or children, so if you're eligible, vaccination is recommended every RSV season.

It's important for anyone living with a high-risk condition or living with someone with a high-risk condition or who is pregnant to discuss their risk for RSV with their healthcare provider.

This resource was created with support from Pfizer,a HealthyWomen Corporate Advisory Council member.

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