What Adults Can Do to Protect Themselves Against RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can be life-threatening for older adults and people with chronic health conditions.

Frequent handwashing is essential to preventing infections.

Respiratory syncytial virus—also known as RSV—is one of the most common causes of respiratory infections in the United States. It’s estimated that nearly all children have been infected with RSV by the age of four. Because infections do not cause long-lasting immunity, it’s likely that the average person will be infected with RSV multiple times throughout their life.

RSV infections are not always mild

Among older children and young adults, an RSV infection typically causes a common cold—a mild illness that may include some combination of sneezing, congestion, runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, and low-grade fever.

However, RSV can and does lead to more severe illness, the kind that can result in bronchial infections, pneumonia, hospitalizations, and even death. Certain people are more at risk for severe illness:

  • Infants and very young children, especially any child who was born preterm.
  • People with certain chronic health conditions, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, congenital heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or anyone with a weakened immune system.
  • Adults over the age of 65. RSV is associated with thousands of deaths among this age group in a given year.

Protecting yourself against RSV

The best way to avoid a severe RSV infection is to avoid becoming infected with RSV in the first place, and there are several strategies a person can use to reduce their risk of acquiring RSV:

  • Hand washing. Frequent handwashing is essential to preventing infections. Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. This can help prevent RSV as well as other infections.
  • Keep hand sanitizer handy. For those times when soap and water are not available, have a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer ready to go.
  • Try not to touch your face. Especially with unwashed hands.
  • Reduce your exposure. Like other respiratory infections, RSV spreads through close contact with people who are sick. Maintaining a safe distance, especially in crowded places, can help prevent the transmission of the virus. If possible, avoid large gatherings or crowded areas during peak RSV season. Also avoid touching, kissing, and sharing drinkware and utensils with others.
  • Clean. Especially anything you touch frequently, like your phone. Also pay attention to objects and surfaces that other people may touch frequently, like doorknobs.
  • Consider wearing a mask. Especially when in crowded places, when you’re around anyone at a higher risk for severe RSV, and if you are sick.

Talk to your healthcare provider about RSV

If there is one thing to take away from this, it’s that RSV can affect different people in drastically different ways—one person may only get a mild cold, another person may end up with a life-threatening lung infection.

When it comes to learning about your health and your risk of illness, there is no better source of information than a healthcare provider. Here are some topics to discuss:

  • Your overall health and medical history, including any existing health conditions.
  • The results of your bloodwork and physical exam and your risk of conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
  • Your habits and lifestyle, including physical activity, what you eat, your sleep habits, mental health, stress, and how often you use alcohol, tobacco, or other substances.
  • Recommended vaccines—Are you up to date? Are there any recommended vaccines that you are missing?

Two RSV vaccines for adults over the age of 60 were approved by the FDA in the spring of 2023 and are expected to be available later in the year. A drug to help prevent RSV in high-risk infants is also available.

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James Andrew Coultas, Rosalind Smyth, and Peter J. Openshaw. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): a scourge from infancy to old age. Thorax 2019. Vol. 74.
Chelsea L. Hansen, Sandra S. Chaves, et al. Mortality Associated With Influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus in the US, 1999-2018. JAMA Network Open, 2022. Vol. 5, No. 2.
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