Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common infection that can affect the lungs and respiratory system. For most people, RSV leads to mild cold-like symptoms such as cough, sneezing and runny nose. But complications are more likely among babies, adults with immunocompromising conditions, and older adults.
Below, find answers to your questions about how to protect young children and vulnerable adults.
Q: Should I avoid seeing babies or older adults when I’m sick?
A: Yes. If you have symptoms like a runny nose or cough, it’s best to avoid contact with others. This is especially true if the person you want to see is at increased risk for complications. RSV can lead to serious breathing problems that could be deadly to vulnerable people.
If you have cold-like symptoms, wait more than a week after you were infected or until your symptoms clear before meeting a friend’s new baby or visiting a senior center. Try to avoid close contact like kissing, sharing food or sitting closely with:
- Adults over age 65.
- People with chronic heart or lung disease.
- People with weakened immune systems.
- Premature infants.
- Infants under 6 months of age.
- Children with neuromuscular disorders.
Q: How can I protect vulnerable people?
A: RSV spreads easily from person to person through droplets that contain the virus. The droplets can be spread through the air when someone sneezes or coughs. So try to avoid close proximity to people who are at risk. Close proximity could include holding a baby or leaning in so an older adult can hear what you’re saying.
The virus also spreads through hand shaking or touching a table or doorknob with the virus on it and then touching your face. Practice good hygiene and wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer after touching shared items or public surfaces. Cover sneezes or coughs and wash hands frequently. If you can, best practice is to stay home if you are sick.
Q: What is the risk of an older adult catching RSV?
A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year more than 60,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized due to RSV, and more than 6,000 die of the infection. The CDC also says that an RSV infection can also lead to worsening:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Congestive heart failure.
A recent study also found that RSV can significantly impact quality of life. Adults who had RSV reported lower energy or fatigue or disruption to their normal social activities for up to 13 months after their RSV infection.
Q: What is the risk of a young child catching RSV?
A: RSV can be life-threatening for babies under 6 months of age, especially those who were born prematurely. It’s estimated that more than 58,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized with RSV in the United States each year. RSV is the leading cause of lower respiratory infections like bronchiolitis, which is inflammation of the airways, in children. RSV also can lead to pneumonia, which is a lung infection.
Babies with RSV might:
- Appear more fussy or irritable than usual.
- Have a decreased appetite.
- Appear tired.
- Make wheezing noises when they breathe.
Babies often get RSV from receiving affection like kisses from caregivers. Since the virus can also live on surfaces for several hours, kids can pick it from playing with shared toys, especially if they put those toys in their mouths. To help protect small children, try to keep them away from people who are sick. If you can, keep at-risk babies home during RSV season. Clean toys with disinfecting wipes and clean children’s hands.
If you’re pregnant, you can talk to your healthcare team about the newly-approved RSV vaccine for expecting mothers. There’s also a new monoclonal antibody preventive treatment for infants and certain children up to age 2.
If you can’t keep a distance
It’s not always possible to avoid close contact with people at high risk of complications from RSV, particularly if you’re a caregiver. Take extra care to keep loved ones healthy by:
- Frequently washing hands or using hand sanitizer.
- Trying not to touch your face.
- Cleaning and disinfecting high-touch items like tables, handrails and toys.
- Sneezing or coughing into a tissue or your upper sleeve, rather than your hands.
Mayo Clinic does not endorse companies or products. Advertising revenue supports our not-for-profit mission.