Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in adults can cause cold-like symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat, and sneezing. In some cases, more severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, may require emergency care.
RSV is a common transmissible respiratory infection during childhood. Most children will have had the virus at least once by the age of
Adults can and do get RSV, too. In most adults, RSV will cause mild cold- or flu-like symptoms — many adults may not be aware they have the virus unless they have a test. The symptoms typically pass in a few days without significant issues.
Adults at highest risk of severe RSV include those who:
- are over age 65
- are immunocompromised
- have heart or lung diseases
Here, learn the symptoms of RSV and get answers to common questions about RSV in adults.
The symptoms of RSV in adults are usually mild and may resemble a cold or flu. These symptoms typically appear in stages, not all at once, and they are not always the same for every person. Symptoms of RSV in adults include:
An adult with RSV may experience increased mucus drainage from the sinuses and nose. This drainage will likely be clear and thin. If it changes color to yellow or green, a person may have a sinus infection and should consult a healthcare professional.
Alternatively, nasal passages could be blocked or “stuffy” if a person has an RSV infection. If this happens, the sinuses may become swollen, which can eventually become painful. Over-the-counter cold medications typically provide relief until the virus runs its course.
A fever is usually a sign the body is fighting an infection. In most cases, the fever accompanying an RSV infection will be low grade. Adults should seek immediate medical attention if their fever goes over 103°F (39.4°C).
In addition to a drippy nose, some people will also experience sneezing and watery eyes. These symptoms can be due to other issues, including seasonal allergies. However, if they occur alongside symptoms not typically caused by seasonal allergies, such as a fever, they may indicate an infection.
Wheezing occurs when inflammation and swelling in the airways narrow the space for air movement. It can result in a high-pitched whistling sound when a person inhales or exhales.
Wheezing can make breathing difficult. This may be serious for adults with health issues such as asthma or other lung conditions.
A person wheezing while sick should contact a healthcare professional. They may need additional medication until the illness passes.
Pain or irritation in the throat is not uncommon with illnesses such as a cold or flu, but it is also a common symptom of RSV in adults. Scratchiness or irritation may worsen when a person swallows.
This symptom is typically not concerning, but it can be problematic if a fever accompanies a sore throat, and both last more than a few days. If this is the case, a person may need treatment to ease symptoms.
A 2022 study of RSV in adults found that
Likewise, all participants in the study who were working at the time of the RSV infection reported they were unable to work during their illness.
Poor appetite is a symptom many people experience when they are not feeling well. It is also a common symptom of RSV. However, it is important for an adult with an RSV infection to stay hydrated while sick. Dehydration can worsen symptoms and may require hospitalization if the dehydration becomes severe.
Short, shallow, or rapid breaths indicate an infection is worsening. These symptoms mean a person is finding it challenging to breathe, and it is important they get emergency medical attention quickly.
Bluish skin on the lips and nails may also indicate they are not getting enough oxygen. This is another sign to seek emergency attention.
Most RSV infections resolve on their own within
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and fever reducers
- staying hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids
- getting plenty of rest
People should contact a doctor if they have difficulty breathing, are dehydrated, or are experiencing worsening symptoms.
There are currently no specific treatments for RSV. However, researchers are working on vaccines to prevent RSV and antivirals to help treat the infection.
The following section answers common questions about RSV in adults.
What does RSV feel like in adults?
Most adults with an RSV infection will experience mild, cold-like symptoms. These include a runny nose, headaches, cough, and sore throat. However, sometimes the symptoms can be severe, and an adult may need hospitalization for an RSV infection.
How long does RSV typically last in adults?
Most adults will experience 2–8 days of symptoms if they have an RSV infection. Some cases of RSV can last longer, especially in people with other health issues.
How do adults know if they have RSV?
An adult cannot know if they have RSV or another respiratory infection without a lab test. As symptoms are typically mild, most healthcare professionals will not test for RSV unless — or until — symptoms worsen significantly.
Can adults with RSV pass it on to others?
Adults with RSV can pass the virus on for 3–8 days. RSV can transmit via contact with respiratory droplets, such as through sneezes or coughs. A person can also contract it by touching affected surfaces such as tables.
RSV is a respiratory infection that can cause cold- or flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, congestion, and sore throat, in adults. Symptoms typically resolve within 1–2 weeks, but some people may develop more severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, that require immediate medical attention.
There are currently no specific treatments for RSV, but getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and taking OTC medications to relieve pain and fever can help people manage symptoms.