It’s no secret that fall and winter are cold and flu season. A few years ago, COVID-19 entered the mix and is here to stay. There’s another virus to keep on your radar this year: respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). A common childhood illness, RSV can affect anyone, but it’s more likely to cause dangerous complications in older adults. Now, in addition to handwashing and other commonsense steps you can take to avoid infection, a vaccine is available to reduce your risk of developing lower respiratory disease from RSV.
What Is RSV?
RSV may not be as familiar to you as the cold and flu viruses, but it’s a common respiratory virus in its own right. Highly contagious, RSV spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread via skin-to-skin contact or by touching a contaminated surface. Like the cold and flu, RSV cases start increasing in fall and peak in winter.
Distinguishing between RSV and other common respiratory illnesses can be difficult because these illnesses share many symptoms. Within a week of infection, RSV may cause a cough, fever, runny nose, sneezing, wheezing and a reduced appetite. The only way to definitively diagnose RSV is by testing a fluid sample from your nose. RSV tests are available at your doctor’s office or an urgent care center.
Medicine to treat the RSV infection doesn’t exist, but you can treat fever and other symptoms using over-the-counter medications until the illness passes. Get plenty of rest and stay hydrated. If you develop severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.
How RSV Can Affect Older Adults
RSV is responsible for more lower respiratory tract infections than any other cause, according to the American Lung Association. Older adults and those with certain chronic conditions, such as heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), have a higher risk of severe RSV-related illness.
Your immune system naturally loses some of its effectiveness as you age, which is why older adults may have a more difficult time dealing with an RSV infection. On top of that, some older adults have weakened immune systems due to medical conditions or treatments, which also leaves them vulnerable to RSV complications.
In older adults, RSV can cause pneumonia or bronchiolitis, an infection of the tiny airways in the lungs. Additionally, RSV can trigger flare-ups of existing conditions, including asthma, COPD and congestive heart failure.
There’s (Finally) a Vaccine for That
In 2023, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first RSV vaccine in the U.S., which is for adults 60 and older. The largest study of the vaccine involved 25,000 people, half of whom received the shot and half of whom received a placebo. The vaccine reduced the risk of developing lower respiratory tract disease from RSV by 82.6 percent and the risk of severe RSV-related lower respiratory tract disease by 94.1 percent. Ask your primary care physician if the RSV vaccine makes sense for you.
Whether or not you receive the RSV vaccine, be sure to take smart steps to stay healthy and reduce your exposure to germs this RSV season, including:
Avoid contact with people who are sick.
Clean and disinfect phones, remotes, countertops, doorknobs, and other frequently touched objects and surfaces.
Eat a variety of nutritious foods.
Exercise on most days of the week.
Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow.
Don’t touch your face unless your hands are clean.
Wash your hands frequently.
Looking for a physician who can help you stay on top of your health and decide whether the RSV vaccine is right for you? Find a Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group primary care location near you and schedule an appointment.