Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a powerful virus that typically rears its head in the fall and winter months alongside the flu. It can present as an A strain or a B strain. Once infected with RSV, a person can experience one of several outcomes based on their age and underlying health, ranging from asymptomatic cases to severe sickness.
Otherwise healthy younger adults typically experience symptoms similar to that of a cold, like coughing, a runny nose and a fever. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these symptoms often emerge 4 to 6 days after a person is first infected.
But in other cases, RSV can lead to respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, further exacerbating and extending a person’s sickness. The virus can be dangerous, with the CDC estimating that it hospitalizes between 60,000 and 160,000 and kills 6,000 to 10,000 older adults annually in the U.S.
In May 2023, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two vaccines meant for preventing RSV in adults age 60 and older — one from GSK and the other from Pfizer — decades after scientists tested the first RSV vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine was also later approved for use in pregnant women to protect newborn infants.
For anyone who has experienced RSV or is more vulnerable to the virus, this progress comes as a relief.
So, what’s it like having RSV? According to the internet, it’s awful. “Had it for around three or four weeks,” one Reddit user shared.
Another Redditor addressed anyone who thinks it’s only bad for kids, saying it’s no picnic as an adult: “I picked up a case of it from my nephew last week, and have lost my voice for several days now.”
To further understand the experience of having RSV, we spoke with Bob Culbertson, who was 68 when he contracted the virus. Here’s what he had to say about coping with RSV.
Q: Could you describe the timeline of your symptoms?
A: I had COVID in early October 2022 and after one week I was worse off. I went back and was diagnosed and treated for RSV, lasting two weeks. Breathing was very difficult. No stamina, cough, headache, congestion and runny nose.
Q: Did having COVID first worsen your RSV symptoms?
A: I don’t know if COVID worsened it. I am compromised already with chronic bronchitis since my late 20s, asthma diagnosed at 66 and pneumonia annually since 2020. I lost 20% lung capacity after my third pneumonia bout. The doctor speculated that it was RSV when the Covid retested negative and told me her suspicion was validated after lab confirmation.
Q: What kind of support structure did you have?
A: I work in healthcare and everyone I work with texted to check in on me. They left treatment to my personal team.
Q: Do you plan to get one of the upcoming RSV vaccines?
A: Absolutely! But that decision will be by the collaborative recommendations of my primary (care provider), pulmonologist and immunologist.
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