For most adults, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) isn’t high on their list of worries. This contagious virus is so common that almost everyone has had it at least once before the age of 2 — and several times in adulthood as well.
For most people, the cold-like symptoms of RSV are mild. They include a stuffy or runny nose, cough, and low fever. But for adults at high risk, including people 65 and older, and those with heart or lung issues, RSV can become a life-threatening condition.
Here’s what you can expect when it comes to RSV treatment.
Mild cases can be managed at home
RSV often feels like a common cold — and it’s treated the same too. Medical experts recommend that you take these self-care steps to manage mild symptoms:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Take acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) as needed.
- Use a saline solution to rinse mucus from your nose.
- Stay on top of regular medicines that help manage chronic heart or lung conditions.
When it’s time to see a healthcare professional
Like a common cold, RSV generally gets better in about 1 to 2 weeks. If your symptoms don’t get better, call your doctor or other healthcare professional.
Don’t delay if you continue to feel worse. These symptoms may need emergency medical attention right away:
- Shortness of breath.
- Blue or gray skin or lips.
- High fever.
- Chest pain.
What a doctor will do for RSV
Healthcare teams can test for RSV, COVID-19 and the flu with a blood test or swab in your nose. Tests also can diagnose RSV complications.
If you test positive for COVID-19 or the flu, your healthcare team can offer specific treatments for these viruses. But there isn’t a standard treatment for RSV. Your doctor will likely manage your symptoms the same way whether or not you test positive for RSV.
How RSV is managed in a clinic or hospital depends on how serious the symptoms are and whether you have other risk factors, like chronic heart disease or a weakened immune system.
Treatments may include:
- IV fluids. In a hospital, you will probably receive an IV to keep you hydrated.
- Medicines. There is medication available to treat RSV, which may be given by mouth or IV. You also may need antibiotics if the RSV has spread to a bacterial infection like pneumonia.
- Oxygen. You will likely be given oxygen to help you breathe more easily. Most people wear a nasal cannula, which is a thin plastic tube that delivers oxygen right to the nose.
- Mechanical ventilation. In rare cases, you may be put on a breathing machine.
Bottom line: Don’t wait to get medical help if your symptoms continue to get worse. If you’re 65 or older, have chronic heart or lung disease, or have a weakened immune system, you may be at high risk of serious RSV.
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