Can Adults Get Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)?

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is common in children, but adults can contract it, too. RSV illness in adults is usually mild, but it can become severe. RSV is commonly thought of as a childhood infection because most people have had an RSV infection by the age of 2 years.

However, adults can also get RSV — even if they’ve had it before. Some adults may also be at higher risk of getting RSV or developing severe illness because of infection.

This article discusses RSV in adults, including its transmission, symptoms, and treatment. It also explains when to contact a doctor for RSV-related symptoms.

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

RSV is a highly contagious Trusted Source World Health Organization Highly respected international organization Go to source Orthopneumovirus that targets parts of the respiratory system, such as the nose, throat, and lungs. It usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, often including a cough.

In some people, RSV can become severe enough to require hospitalization and may be life threatening.

Can adults get RSV?

People of any age can get RSV. It’s also possible to get RSV more than once Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source . Having RSV as a child doesn’t mean you are immune in adulthood.

However, RSV infections are often mild in adults without health conditions. Symptoms of a mild RSV infection are similar to a cold. Also, you may not have any symptoms.

RSV spreads through airborne droplets from sneezing or coughing. You can also You can contract the virus by touching a surface with RSV.

The infection can spread even if people with RSV do not have symptoms.

The contagious period of RSV often ranges from a few days before symptoms begin to 8 days afterward. However, infants and people with weakened immune systems can transmit the virus for up to 4 weeks, even if they do not have symptoms.

Learn more about the timeline of RSV in adults, including its transmission and recovery periods.

Which adults are most at risk for severe cases of RSV?

Anyone can get RSV. Risk factors for serious cases of RSV in adults include:

  • being over age 60
  • having chronic lung diseases, such as asthma or COPD
  • having a chronic heart disease
  • having a weakened immune system

What are the symptoms of RSV in adults?

For adults with mild cases of RSV, symptoms can be similar to those in children. They include:

In severe cases of RSV in adults, symptoms may include difficulty breathing due to lung complications, including:

How do you treat RSV in adults?

In mild cases of RSV in adults, most people feel better within 1–2 weeks. When needed, treatment can include:

  • over-the-counter fever or pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen (Excedrin, Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • staying hydrated
  • resting as much as possible
  • nasal saline rinse

The medication ribavirin (Cobetus, RibaPak) may be effective in severe RSV infection in some adults. However, healthcare experts debate its safety and effectiveness, and doctors may not recommend it for everyone.

If an adult has severe breathing difficulties, they may need hospital care such as supplemental oxygen or mechanically assisted breathing. Usually, hospitalization lasts until symptoms improve, which is a few days.

When should an adult see a doctor for RSV?

Contact a doctor promptly if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • breathing difficulties
  • sudden or severe symptoms
  • symptoms that do not improve with at-home or medical care

Also, contact a doctor if you have RSV even mildly and experience any of the following factors:

  • are over age 60
  • have a chronic health condition
  • have a weakened immune system

Should adults get the RSV vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source recommends RSV vaccination for the following people:

  • adults age 60 and over
  • pregnant people who are at 32—36 weeks of gestation, to prevent RSV in the infant once it is born
  • infants and some young children

Still, doctors may not recommend the vaccination for every person who fits these criteria.

For adults ages 60 and over, a doctor may recommend vaccination Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source if:

  • you have a weakened immune system due to illness or immunosuppressant medication
  • you have a chronic condition, such as lung or heart disease
  • you live in a residential care home

There are two vaccines for RSV in adults ages 60 and over: GSK Arexvy and Pfizer Abrysvo.

For pregnant people only, the FDA Trusted Source Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Governmental authority Go to source has approved Abrysvo.

Vaccination can be important even if you’ve had RSV

The RSV vaccine can offer additional protection against RSV, even if you’ve previously had the infection.

You may react differently to RSV each time you have it, and it’s possible to become severely ill even if you’ve previously had the infection. The RSV vaccine can help:

  • lower the risk of getting an RSV infection
  • reduce the severity of RSV illness
  • lower the risk of needing hospital care for RSV

Learn more about the RSV vaccine.

Summary

Though RSV is common in childhood, adults can also contract the infection. Also, it’s possible to get RSV more than once.

Most adults with no underlying health conditions experience mild RSV. People age 60 and older, people with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic health conditions may be more likely to become seriously ill.

A doctor may recommend an RSV vaccination if you’re 60 years or older or pregnant.

Talk with a doctor if you have questions about RSV, symptoms, or vaccination.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2024 May 2
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