For most healthy adults, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) might mean a few days on the couch watching reruns. The virus’s cold-like symptoms — a runny nose, cough and sore throat — can feel crummy. But they aren’t typically serious enough to call the doctor.
However, that’s not the case for everyone. For some adults, RSV is like a bad flu. For others, it’s a life-threatening virus.
RSV can cause pneumonia or other serious lung infections. It also can make some chronic health conditions worse. In the U.S., it’s estimated that up to 10,000 older adults with RSV die of the virus each year.
Is RSV a potential threat for you or your loved ones? Here’s what experts say.
Know your risk factors
You have a higher risk of a serious case of RSV if you:
- Are 65 years old or older. As you age, your immune system naturally weakens. This makes it harder for your body to fight infections.
- Have heart or lung disease. Adults with congestive heart failure are eight times more likely to be hospitalized for RSV than those without congestive heart failure. RSV also can make symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worse.
- Have a weakened immune system. This group may include people with autoimmune conditions, transplant recipients or people who have recently received chemotherapy.
- Live in a long-term care facility. RSV can spread easily in places where people live close together. People who live in care facilities are also more likely to have other health conditions that increase their risk of serious RSV infection.
- Have asthma. Symptoms of asthma, including wheezing and trouble breathing, may get worse when you have RSV.
- Live at a high altitude. People who live at 8,500 feet (2,500 meters) or higher may experience more-serious cases of RSV.
Protect yourself from RSV
If you or a loved one is at a high risk of serious RSV, there are simple ways to protect yourself and others from infection. Mayo Clinic experts recommend the following tips:
- Take symptoms seriously. What may seem like a simple cold could lead to a life-threatening infection for some people. It’s better to cancel plans and focus on recovery than to risk hospitalization.
- Keep your distance. If you have cold-like symptoms, avoid spending time with people at risk of serious RSV. If you live together, avoid close contact, like kissing or sharing cups.
- Stock up on soap and disinfectant. Stop the spread of RSV germs by washing your hands frequently. Clean things that people touch often, like doorknobs, faucet handles and countertops.
- Don’t delay medical care if symptoms worsen. If you or your loved one experiences wheezing, blue or gray skin or lips, difficulty breathing, or chest pain, call your healthcare team right away.
- If you’re 60 years of age or older, talk to your healthcare team about vaccination.
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