Can Adults Get Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD
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Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common infection. It is so common that most people have had it by the time they are 2 years old. Adults can also get RSV. While it is usually mild for most adults, it can become serious. Some groups are at higher risk of RSV becoming serious. These include people over age 65, those with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic heart or lung disease.

Here is a look at RSV in adults, including how it spreads, symptoms, and treatments. This article also covers when to contact your doctor to avoid serious complications.

What is the respiratory syncytial virus?

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Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious Orthopneumovirus that targets parts of the respiratory system. These include the nose, throat, and lungs. It usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, often including a cough. In certain people, it can become serious enough to require hospitalization and may be life threatening.

Can adults get RSV?

RSV is the most common cause of lower respiratory illness in children under 1 year old. However, adults can also get RSV. Even if you have had RSV in the past, you can get reinfected. This is because a previous infection does not make you immune.

Adults frequently get RSV from infants or children, who often become infected in daycare facilities. They can then spread the virus to adults who care for them. Transmission can happen even when the child has no symptoms.

RSV spreads through airborne droplets from sneezing or coughing. You can get RSV by touching contaminated surfaces. The illness is generally seasonal and most common in cooler months.

Most people with RSV are contagious for up to 8 days after they become infected. However, infants and immunocompromised adults can continue to spread the virus for up to a month, even without symptoms.

Which adults are most at risk for serious cases of RSV?

Anyone, regardless of age, can get RSV. Risk factors for serious cases of RSV in adults include:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 175,000 adults a year are hospitalized with RSV in the United States. About 14,000 adults over the age of 65 die from RSV complications.

What are the symptoms of RSV in adults?

For adults with mild cases of RSV, symptoms can be similar to those seen in children. They include:

In severe cases of RSV in adults, symptoms may include difficulty breathing due to lung complications, including:

RSV in adults can also make existing chronic heart and lung conditions worse.

How do you treat RSV in adults?

In mild cases of RSV in adults, most people will feel better on their own within a week. When needed, treatment can include:

  • over-the-counter fever-reducing medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • plenty of clear liquids to avoid dehydration

A medication called ribavirin may be effective against severe RSV infection in some adults. However, its safety and effectiveness are debated among healthcare experts.

If an adult is having serious breathing difficulties, they may need supplemental oxygen or mechanically-assisted breathing. These are given in hospital settings. Usually, hospitalization only lasts a few days until symptoms improve.

When should an adult see a doctor for RSV?

If you think you have RSV and are over age 65, have chronic lung or heart disease, or have a weak immune system, tell your doctor about your symptoms.

If you are having breathing difficulties, seek immediate medical care or call 911. Though most cases of RSV are not serious, they can be potentially life threatening for certain individuals.

Summary

RSV is a very common respiratory infection, and most people have been exposed to it before they are 2 years old. Adults can also get RSV because having the infection in the past does not produce immunity to the virus.

RSV is generally mild and causes a cough, runny nose, and fever, among other symptoms. RSV can become serious in people over 65, those with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic heart or lung disease.

It is important to contact a doctor if you or someone you know is having trouble breathing. In some instances, people may be admitted to the hospital and given supplemental oxygen or breathing assistance. RSV can be fatal, although this is relatively rare.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 27
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