Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in adults and those with certain chronic conditions can pose many serious health concerns, just as it does among young infants.
RSV is a common respiratory infection. As with many other viruses, case numbers spike during the winter season, often coinciding with influenza, which has almost identical symptoms.
Many parents are aware of the risk RSV poses to infants. However, older adults and people with certain chronic conditions are also at risk for developing serious illness from RSV.
This article explores why RSV becomes more severe with age and which groups are the most at-risk.
Older adults are among those most likely to experience severe RSV illness.
Why RSV has a significant affect on the older population has much to do with natural immune system aging. Right around the age of
As age progresses, the immune system continues to weaken through a process known as immunosenescence.
Even though most people are exposed to RSV multiple times throughout life, immunity does not last. This means there will be times when the body must fight off the virus as if it were the first exposure.
As immune system function declines, so does the ability to fight off RSV — and any infection.
Any time the immune system is compromised, there is the potential for RSV infection to be severe.
- older adults, especially those who are 65 years and older
- adults with weakened immune systems
- adults living with chronic lung or heart disease
Groups at high risk for RSV
It is possible to experience short-term conditions that might worsen RSV symptoms, but some groups have a higher risk for RSV complications overall.
These include people with conditions such as:
- congestive heart failure
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
In these populations, the respiratory symptoms of RSV can compound existing challenges. Lung infections or pneumonia can worsen symptoms by reducing lung function and blood oxygen levels.
For example, a 2022 study published in PLOS One found that living with congestive heart failure was associated with an
Congestive heart failure is associated with
Alone, pulmonary edema can lead to shortness of breath or respiratory distress. When paired with RSV lung complications, breathing ability can further decline.
Ultimately, chronic conditions that already involve the lungs may be among those most affected by RSV.
RSV in adults is a growing concern that may account for up to
Below are some common questions about RSV in older adults and adults with chronic conditions.
Do adults with lung conditions have a higher risk of RSV?
Compared with the general population, adults with asthma, COPD, and congestive heart failure have a higher risk for severe RSV infection.
How long does RSV last in older adults?
According to a 2022 retrospective review of patient charts published in Health Science Reports, the average hospitalization stay for adults with RSV was
Will RSV worsen certain conditions?
RSV can worsen other conditions, such as asthma, COPD, or congestive heart failure, by affecting lung function and capacity.
What makes RSV in adults different from influenza?
Influenza tends to have a more rapid symptom onset combined with high fever than RSV.
While RSV can sometimes cause fever, it is not as common.
In addition, influenza severity tends to fluctuate yearly depending on the strain, while severe RSV symptoms have remained consistent over the years.
RSV symptoms in older adults
- runny nose
- sore throat
- shortness of breath
- worsening of symptoms in chronic conditions such as asthma
There is no vaccine or specific treatment for RSV, though research for
For older adults, care focuses on maintaining comfort, managing fever when present, and preventing RSV from progressing into a life threatening respiratory illness.
- regular handwashing
- avoiding close contact with someone who may be sick
- keeping hands away from eyes, nose, and mouth
- covering coughs and sneezes, ideally with a disposable tissue
- disinfecting surfaces that people regularly touch, such as sink handles, door knobs, light switches, and countertops
- staying home when not feeling well — RSV is usually contagious for
3–8 days. For people with weakened immune systems, RSV may remain transmissible for up to 4 weeks.
It is not clear whether wearing a face mask can prevent the transmission of RSV.
According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, people should seek emergency care for RSV if:
- breathing becomes difficult
- skin color is blueish, particularly on the nails or lips
- a high fever develops
Visiting an emergency facility when sickness feels severe or impairing can help prevent serious complications and even death.
RSV in adults can pose significant risks for those older or living with chronic conditions.
It may also worsen some conditions, such as asthma, COPD, and congestive heart failure.
Anyone experiencing severe symptoms should seek medical care immediately.