Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common cause of lower respiratory tract infections that often presents as a simple cold in most adults. However, for some individuals, it can become a more serious infection or lead to health complications.

Certain groups of people have a much higher risk of developing potentially fatal complications or exacerbating existing conditions, such as congestive heart failure.

The American Lung Association identifies three groups as particularly high risk, including:

  • people over 65 years
  • adults with weakened immune systems
  • adults with heart or lung conditions

This article reviews some of the long-term effects and complications RSV can have on certain adults, as well as possible treatments and when to seek emergency care.

Asthma involves inflammation of the airways that make it difficult to breathe. Adults with asthma may find that RSV triggers worsening asthma symptoms or brings on an asthma attack.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two common types of COPD.

An estimated 16 million people are living with COPD in the United States. Many more may also have COPD but have yet to receive a diagnosis.

RSV can cause COPD symptoms to worsen during the infection. This makes it more difficult for a person to get enough air.

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that affects the air sacs, causing them to fill with fluid and become inflamed. RSV is a leading cause of pneumonia in infants. RSV can also lead to pneumonia in older adults and other higher-risk groups.

Bronchiolitis is another type of lung infection that causes inflammation of the small airways known as bronchioles. As with other lung infections, it can make breathing difficult.

Bronchiolitis typically occurs in the fall and winter. RSV is a common cause.

In adults with compromised immune systems or other risk factors, RSV can increase the chances of developing a bronchiolitis infection.

In people who have congestive heart failure, an RSV infection can lead to more severe cardiac symptoms. A person living with congestive heart failure is also at a much higher risk of RSV-related hospitalization.

According to a 2022 study, people with congestive heart failure were eight times more likely to be hospitalized due to an RSV infection than the general population. Findings recommend that researchers continue to look into viable vaccinations.

There is no specific treatment for RSV. For mild symptoms, experts recommend drinking plenty of fluids and resting.

For people living with either COPD or asthma, continuing regular medications as prescribed should help prevent health complications. If needed, a person should consider consulting a doctor about adjusting treatment when sick.

It can take between 1 and 2 weeks for a person to recover from RSV. A person with a more severe infection may need more time to recover and may require emergency care.

Older adults and those with compromised immune systems should watch for signs that an RSV infection may require medical attention.

Signs a person needs to go to the emergency room or call 911 for RSV include:

  • worsening cough
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • bluish tint to the skin
  • fever

A person should also watch for signs of dehydration. Some common signs of dehydration include:

  • thirst
  • dry skin and lips
  • fatigue
  • dark urine or decreased urine output
  • headaches
  • muscle cramps
  • dizziness or lightheadedness, especially upon standing
  • heart palpitations

If a person is in the hospital for RSV, doctors and medical staff will likely administer IV fluids and supplemental oxygen. In most cases, an RSV-related hospital stay will last a few days.

Prevention is key for adults at risk of severe RSV and related complications. Individuals can take the following measures to avoid becoming sick with RSV:

  • avoiding close contact with sick people
  • washing hands frequently, especially before meals and before touching the face, nose, or mouth
  • covering the nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing
  • disinfecting and cleaning surfaces around the home, office, and car regularly
  • staying home when sick

There is currently no vaccination for adults with RSV. However, many RSV vaccines have been developed and are undergoing clinical trials or seeking FDA approval.

If an RSV vaccine does become available, adults at higher risk of RSV-related complications should talk with a doctor about getting vaccinated.

RSV can become a severe infection in certain adults, including people over 65 years, those with preexisting lung or heart issues, and those with compromised immune systems. It may also lead to complications such as pneumonia.

At-risk adults should consider taking precautions to help prevent infection, which can include handwashing and disinfecting surfaces regularly. If a person does become sick with RSV, resting and getting plenty of fluids can help. It is also important to know when to seek emergency medical care for RSV.