Many people associate respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) with babies. And for good reason — this highly contagious virus can be especially serious for infants and children. The threat of RSV is one reason new parents may turn away visitors or ask people to wash their hands before holding the baby.
But RSV isn’t just a childhood virus. You’ve probably had it as an adult and assumed it was a common cold. And as you age and your immune system weakens, your risk of having a more serious case increases.
Here are the quick facts about RSV in adults.
Most cases of adult RSV are mild
For most healthy adults, RSV feels like a common cold. Symptoms like runny nose, cough, low fever, sneezing and sore throat can be annoying to deal with. But they’re typically mild and only last a week or two.
Most people are able to manage mild RSV symptoms at home with rest, fluids and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).
Certain people have a higher risk
Just like the flu, RSV is mild for most people — but life-threatening for some. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that each year, an estimated 60,000 to 160,000 older adults in the U.S. are hospitalized with RSV. Up to 10,000 older adults die of the virus.
Who’s at risk? Serious infection is more likely for people who:
- Are age 65 or older.
- Have heart and lung disease.
- Have a weakened immune system, also called immunocompromised.
One reason RSV is dangerous for these groups is because it can make current health conditions worse. It can especially worsen symptoms of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or congestive heart failure. The virus also can cause other serious lung infections, like pneumonia and bronchiolitis.
RSV can increase your risk of other illnesses
Your immune system is weakened while you have RSV. Even if you’re a healthy adult, this can increase your chance of getting other viruses, like COVID-19.
Some symptoms shouldn’t be ignored
Most mild symptoms of RSV can be treated at home. But some symptoms are serious and require immediate medical attention. They are:
- Difficulty breathing.
- High fever.
- Blue or gray lips or skin.
- Chest pain.
You may keep getting RSV
Almost everyone has had RSV at some point. In fact, most people have it before they’re 2 years old.
But unlike many other viruses of the lungs, RSV can keep coming back. This is because immunity doesn’t last.
Prevention is better than treatment
This year, two RSV vaccines were approved for adults 60 and older. One of these vaccines was also recently approved for pregnant mothers.
You also can protect yourself from the virus by doing what you do every cold and flu season:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap.
- Reschedule plans with friends who have symptoms like coughing or fever.
- Regularly clean commonly used surfaces like doorknobs and faucet handles.
- Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils with other people.
If you have cold-like symptoms, protect others by staying home. Remember: Even if your case is mild, RSV can be life-threatening for someone else.
Mayo Clinic does not endorse companies or products. Advertising revenue supports our not-for-profit mission.