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RSV Symptoms In Adults, Treatment, Complications

Cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are through the roof right now. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a near-vertical climb over the past few weeks in RSV tests that have come back positive—a whopping 18.2 percent, to be exact. You’ve probably heard that this kind of infection is common among children and babies, but what about RSV in adults? Is that a legit concern?

Nearly all children will have an RSV infection by the time they’re two, according to the CDC. But anyone can get RSV, says Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and the chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. It’s just that children and older adults are most likely to develop serious complications from the virus, like bronchiolitis (an inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (an infection of the lungs).

It’s worth noting that RSV isn’t new—it was actually discovered back in 1956. But why are there so many RSV cases right now? A lot of it has to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Russo says. RSV is a common infection that spikes annually, but when people stayed home at the height of COVID-19, they were less likely to pick up RSV as well. “COVID precautions work against RSV too,” he says.

If you’re a generally healthy adult, you shouldn’t stress about RSV—it usually causes cold-like symptoms and that’s about it. For people living with underlying health condition that affects your lungs, like asthma, though, it’s understandable to be wary.

Here’s what you need to know about RSV in adults, plus how it’s treated.

Meet the experts: Thomas Russo, MD, is a professor and the chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York.

Amesh Adalja, MD, is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an adjunct assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His work is focused on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity.

What is RSV?

RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, per the CDC. Most people who become infected with the virus get better in a week or two, but it’s possible to develop complications like bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

There are different types of RSV. “There are two main groups of RSV: RSV A, RSV B, and multiple types within those groups,” says infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. However, Dr. Russo says they’re still pretty similar. “The differences are more nuanced as opposed to the flu, where you have gross changes,” he says.

Anyone can get RSV, unfortunately, and RSV symptoms in adults can include the following, according to the CDC:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

The symptoms usually appear in stages, the CDC says. So, you might get a runny nose, then develop a cough.

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Are RSV infections serious in adults?

It depends. In general, RSV causes cold-like symptoms in adults, but there is always a risk of developing more severe complications, especially pneumonia, which can be deadly, Dr. Russo says.

Dr. Adalja compares the potential complications of RSV to what you could experience with the flu. Older adults, young children, and people with underlying health conditions like asthma and congestive heart failure are the most at risk of developing complications, the CDC says.

For most people, though, symptoms of RSV resolve in a week or two, per the CDC.

How long is RSV contagious in adults?

People who have RSV are usually contagious for three to eight days, the CDC says. And, this is the kicker: You could be contagious a day or two before you develop symptoms.

There is a little difference from person to person, though. Some infants and people with weakened immune systems can spread RSV for as long as four weeks, according to the CDC.

If you’re sick with RSV, the CDC recommends that you take these steps to avoid passing it on to other people:

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve (i.e., not your hands)
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid close contact, like kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups and utensils, with others
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and phones

Ideally, people with cold-like symptoms should not interact with children at high risk for a severe case of RSV disease, including premature infants, children younger than 2 with chronic lung or heart conditions, children with weakened immune systems, or children with neuromuscular disorders.

How do you test for RSV in adults?

While your doctor may suspect you have RSV if you’re sick, the symptoms tend to overlap with those of the flu and COVID-19, Dr. Russo points out. So, you’ll need to get tested to know for sure.

Usually that means you’ll be given a rapid test, which involves a nasal swab. Results come back in about 15 minutes or so, Dr. Russo says. And, if you happen to go to the hospital with symptoms, you may be tested for RSV, COVID-19, and the flu with one test, he says.

How do you treat an RSV infection in adults?

There’s no specific treatment for RSV in adults. Instead, the CDC recommends that you take OTC fever reducers and pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen as needed and drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.

You can also use throat drops if you have a sore throat or cough, along with decongestants if you feel stuffy, Dr. Russo says.

Again, most people just feel like they have a cold when they have RSV. But, if your symptoms seem to be getting worse or you have an underlying health condition like asthma, call your doctor about next steps.

The bottom line: If you’re a generally healthy adult, RSV is likely to cause mild cold-like symptoms that can be managed at home. Make sure to avoid spreading the virus to babies, children, and others with underlying chronic conditions, as they’re at higher risk of developing serious complications.

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