Although RSV has been around for quite some time and might seem like just another cold, it’s been recently making national headlines due to climbing rates of cases around the United States. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a respiratory virus that causes illnesses of the nose, throat and lungs – much like COVID-19, which is why it can be easily confused as such when you come into contact with it.
RSV is more commonly seen in young children and infants than adults. In fact, according to healthychildren.org, nearly all children will be infected with this particular virus at least once before the age of two. However, with cases on the rise around the country, it’s good to know more about this virus to better protect yourself and your family.
As with many respiratory viruses that spread via person-to-person, late fall through early spring is the main time this virus is around. And with mask-wearing and physical distancing measures in place, according to healthychildren.org, there were fewer cases of RSV in the year 2020. However, once vaccines for COVID-19 became available and safety measures were adjusted and relaxed, a sharp rise in RSV cases began around spring 2021.
“Healthy people usually experience mild, cold-like symptoms and recover in 1-2 weeks,” writes the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). “But RSV can be serious, especially for infants, patients who are immunocompromised and older adults.”
Typically, RSV will cause a cold, which is then followed by bronchiolitis and pneumonia. In fact, it’s the most common cause of these two illnesses in children under the age of 1 in the United States. On average, NFID states that RSV leads to roughly 2.1 million outpatient visits, 58,000 hospitalizations and 100-500 deaths among children younger than the age of five.
Anyone that comes into contact with the virus can become infected, but those at highest risk of severe disease include:
While the symptoms of RSV may start off mild or might be mild among a large number of the population, infants and older adults typically see the worst side of it and it can be life threatening. It’s good to know the signs and symptoms in order to best take care of yourself, as well as your loved ones.
Common symptoms of RSV can appear pretty similar to other respiratory viruses and illnesses, as they include: runny nose, decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing. Symptoms typically appear in stages and not all at one. While symptoms can be hard to tell in younger infants, usually symptoms can look like irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties.
While healthy adults can contract the virus and have few symptoms, they can still spread the virus to others, especially because symptoms may not appear until 4 to 6 days after being infected.
“People infected with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days,” NFID writes. “However, some infants, and people with weakened immune systems, can continue to spread the virus even after they stop showing symptoms, for as long as 4 weeks.”
As with many viruses that spread via person-to-person, it’s important to stay on top of ways that you can help minimize the spread of the virus. To best help prevent the spread of RSV, NFID suggests to:
Other ways that you can help minimize the spread of RSV is by cleaning frequently touched surfaces, as it can survive up to 6 hours on surfaces such as toys, keyboards, doorknobs and more. You can also try to limit your baby’s exposure to crowds, other children or anyone with a cold and to keep them home from childcare if they are visibly sick.
There is medicine that can help with RSV illness in certain infants and children who are at high risk for severe disease. The drug, per NFID, can help prevent the disease from becoming too serious, but unfortunately, cannot help cure or treat children already suffering with the disease and cannot prevent infection.
As science and technology continues to develop, however, researchers are working to develop RSV vaccines and are hopeful it will happen in the future. Especially during a time when vaccines are getting pushed through in hopes to help people survive the pandemic. And while you might have heard about young children and infants being vulnerable to RSV, what about the health and safety for adults?
As previously mentioned, anyone that comes into contact with RSV can ultimately end up getting infected and has a risk of becoming ill. However, there is a certain age population that is more vulnerable to the virus and can ultimately see worse illnesses after contracting the virus.
According to NFID, RSV has become more increasingly recognized recently as a “significant cause of respiratory illness” in the older population. They have estimated that RSV causes 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths in adults 65 and older in the United States each year.
Mainly – adults that are 65 years of age and older and/or have heart and lung diseases, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma – are at higher risk of becoming more ill if contracting the virus.
Common symptoms in many older children and adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic, include: a runny nose, congestion, mild headache, sore throat, fever, cough and tiredness.
But regardless of age, you should try to go see a doctor if your symptoms start to worsen over a period of time. If you start to experience symptoms of bronchiolitis, dehydration, pauses or difficult breathing or significantly decreased activity and alertness, you should notify your provider right away.
It should also be noted that with RSV, you could become infected more than once in your life and even more than once during a single RSV season. Sometimes, when people come into contact with certain viruses they can build immunity. However, RSV does not work this way and an individual can experience several infections. The good news is that typically the repeated infections tend to be less severe. Although if you are an older adult with a weakened immune system or long-term heart or lung disease, RSV infection may be more serious if you are infected again.
As with any cold and flu or other viruses around this time of year, try to wash your hands often and thoroughly, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing and coughing and try to avoid close contact with those who have known RSV illnesses. And, as always, remember to consult your healthcare provider if you feel like you or a loved one might have worsening symptoms over a period of time as it might be key in helping you recover.