While RSV is generally mild in healthy people, older adults and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of severe complications.
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common cause of acute lower respiratory infection in children and adults. In fact, it’s so common there’s a good chance you’ve been sick with it before. Adults can get RSV multiple times, even in the same year.
Fortunately, most adults who get RSV just have mild symptoms, similar to the common cold. RSV typically doesn’t cause lasting symptoms and clears up on its own in a week or two.
But certain people, such as older adults and those with pre-existing conditions or weakened immune systems, are at higher risk of severe — sometimes life-threatening — complications from RSV.
“Long-term effects of RSV in adults can depend on how healthy your lungs are when you contract RSV,” says Stanley Martin, MD, system director of infectious diseases at Geisinger. “If you have a chronic condition, such as asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), RSV can exacerbate them by putting further strain on your heart and lungs, and lead to long-term damage.”
If you’re diagnosed with RSV, early treatment can help prevent further complications.
RSV symptoms in adults
RSV symptoms tend to appear about four to six days after exposure to the virus and resemble cold symptoms: coughing, fever, congestion and sore throat.
Older adults, especially those with underlying conditions, should watch for worsening symptoms. Seek emergency medical care right away if you have:
- A worsening cough
- Shortness of breath
- A bluish tint to your skin or nails
- Chest pain or pressure
- A persistent fever
- Signs of dehydration, such as dark urine, less frequent urination, muscle cramps or dizziness
Who’s at risk for complications from RSV?
According to the American Lung Association, three groups are at particularly high risk of developing severe symptoms or exacerbating existing conditions:
- Adults age 65 and over
- Adults with weakened immune systems
- Adults with pre-existing heart or lung problems
Long-term effects of RSV in adults
In at-risk adults, RSV can cause long-term, sometimes permanent, damage to the lungs, airways and heart even after the infection has passed.
Complications that can lead to long-term effects include:
An RSV infection can lead to pneumonia, where the air sacs in your lungs become inflamed and filled with fluid or pus, making it more difficult to breathe. Pneumonia can cause a lingering cough and you may feel run down for weeks, long after the RSV infection has cleared. In severe cases, pneumonia can be life-threatening.
RSV also can increase the risk for bronchiolitis, a lung infection that causes inflammation of the small airways in your lungs. It makes breathing difficult, causes wheezing and low oxygen levels in the body and can even lead to respiratory failure.
Worsening asthma symptoms
If you have asthma, you already have inflammation in your airways and difficulty getting enough air, at times. An RSV infection puts added strain on your lungs, which can lead to worsening asthma symptoms or more frequent asthma attacks, intense chest pain and even lung failure.
Exacerbated COPD symptoms
Just like in adults who have asthma, an RSV infection can exacerbate COPD symptoms by causing even more inflammation and damage to your lungs. This can lead to additional breathing difficulties, more wheezing and an increased risk of hospitalization.
Severe heart symptoms
Infected lungs put added strain on your heart and can result in damage. If you have congestive heart failure, an RSV infection may lead to more severe cardiac symptoms and put you at a higher risk of hospitalization and even death.
RSV treatment in adults
Because RSV is a virus, there is no specific treatment for it. It’s best treated at home by managing your symptoms while your body fights off the infection. A mild case of RSV resolves in one or two weeks, but adults with a severe case may need more time to recover.
For mild symptoms, drinking plenty of fluids and getting enough rest are key to speedy recovery. Using a humidifier or taking a hot, steamy shower soothes irritated airways and eases breathing. Try over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to alleviate fever, headache and body aches.
Developing severe symptoms means you may need supportive care in a hospital. Your doctor might prescribe an inhaler, supplemental oxygen or intravenous fluids. In rare cases, they might also prescribe antiviral medication to help inhibit the replication of the virus.
“If you have an underlying condition, take your medications as prescribed to help with breathing problems,” says Dr. Martin. “Be sure to speak to your provider, because your medications might need to be adjusted during the infection.”
Prevention is key for at-risk adults. Practicing good hygiene habits can help protect you from RSV, including:
- Frequently washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before meals and after coughing or sneezing. If a sink isn’t available, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is the next best thing.
- Regularly cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in your home, such as doorknobs, countertops, phones and other shared items.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick with respiratory infections.
- Avoiding touching your nose and mouth. If you’ve touched a surface with the RSV virus on it, you can easily be infected if you then touch your face.
But the best way to protect yourself is vaccination. An RSV vaccine was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s a safe, effective single injection that not only reduces your risk of catching RSV, but it also lowers your risk of serious illness that requires hospitalization if you do get infected. Most side effects from the shot are mild and go away in a day or two.
“The RSV vaccine is recommended for adults age 60 and older who may be at risk,” says Dr. Martin. “Getting vaccinated against RSV is an important step toward protecting yourself and your loved ones.”