Although respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is commonly associated with babies, people of all ages can get infected. Older adults over the age of 60 are at an even higher risk of contracting RSV. According to William Schaffner, MD, medical director of National Foundation of Infectious Diseases, RSV is increasingly recognized as a significant cause of respiratory illness in older adults in the US. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 177,000 older adults are hospitalized due to RSV infections each year, and 14,000 of them die as a result.
What Is RSV?
RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is a highly contagious respiratory virus that easily spreads. It primarily affects the nose, throat, lungs, and breathing passages. The symptoms of RSV are similar to those of a common cold, which can sometimes lead to confusion with other viral illnesses like the flu or COVID-19.
What Are the Symptoms of RSV?
RSV symptoms in older adults can vary. In infants, symptoms may include irritability, reduced activity, and difficulty breathing. In older adults, common symptoms of RSV include:
- Runny nose
- Decreased appetite
- Low-grade fever
In severe cases, RSV can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the respiratory tract. Signs that RSV may be getting worse include a high fever, severe cough, wheezing (whistling sound when breathing), rapid breathing, and a bluish skin color due to a lack of oxygen. If you experience difficulty breathing or notice bluish skin, it is important to call 911 immediately.
How Is RSV Diagnosed?
RSV symptoms in older adults can vary but may include coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Your doctor might think you have respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) based on a physical check-up and the time of year you’re feeling sick. When checking you, the doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs to see if there are any unusual sounds like wheezing.
Most of the time, you don’t need lab tests or X-rays. But sometimes, these tests can help figure out if you have complications from RSV or if something else is causing your symptoms. The tests you might have are:
- Blood tests to see if you have more white blood cells than usual or to look for germs like viruses or bacteria.
- Chest X-rays to look for signs of swelling in your lungs.
- A swab from your mouth or nose to see if the virus is there.
- Pulse oximetry, which uses a sensor on your skin to check if your blood oxygen level is lower than it should be. This test doesn’t hurt.
How Does RSV Spread?
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, spreads quite easily. Here are some typical ways it gets around:
- When someone with RSV coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets with the virus can get into your nose, eyes, or mouth.
- Touching things like kitchen counters or doorknobs that have the virus on them, and then touching your face, especially your eyes or mouth, without washing your hands first. RSV can stay on hard surfaces for a few hours.
- Being close to someone who has RSV, like hugging or kissing them.
If you catch RSV, you can pass it on to others for about 3-8 days. But if your immune system isn’t strong, you might spread the virus for up to 4 weeks, even if you don’t feel sick anymore. RSV infections are most common in the fall, winter, and spring, from November to April. However, it’s possible to get RSV at any time of the year.
How Older Adult Can Prevent RSV?
Preventing RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) in older adults involves a few key steps:
- Wash Hands Regularly: Frequent handwashing with soap and water is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of germs, including RSV.
- Avoid Close Contact: Try to stay away from people who are sick. If RSV is going around, it’s especially important to avoid close contact with young children who are more likely to have the virus.
- Clean and Disinfect Surfaces: Regularly clean surfaces that get touched a lot, like doorknobs, light switches, and cell phones, to kill any viruses.
- Cover Coughs and Sneezes: Use a tissue or your elbow to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. This helps stop the spread of virus droplets.
- Stay Home When Sick: If you’re not feeling well, it’s best to stay home to avoid spreading germs to others.
- Avoid Touching Your Face: Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth, as these are common ways germs enter the body.
- Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Eating well, getting enough sleep, and staying active can help keep your immune system strong.
Remember, RSV can be more serious in older adults, so taking these preventive measures is important. If you have concerns or health conditions that put you at higher risk, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider for personalized advice