What is RSV?
Jan 18, 2023

Editor’s Note: post last updated May 3, 2023. 

You probably know someone who has gotten sick with RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) given the number of cases in the U.S. this fall and winter season. While the recent RSV surge has made headlines, this common respiratory virus has been a threat to infants and young children, older adults, and adults with chronic medical conditions for years.

Learn more about the virus, its symptoms, and how to best protect your family from RSV.

What is RSV?

RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually spreads seasonally. In infants and young children, RSV is very common – in fact, it is the most common cause of acute lower respiratory infection in young children. Almost all children will get an RSV infection by the time they are 2 years old. RSV can be very serious for some babies and young children, especially premature infants, infants younger than 6 months, and young children with pre-existing health conditions. In one analysis that looked at available data through 2019, researchers found that (globally) one in every 28 deaths in children between 1 month and 6 months old is attributable to RSV. Here in the U.S., RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization in children younger than one year old. Approximately 75% of infants hospitalized for RSV are not born prematurely and don’t have underlying medical conditions.  

In older adults – especially those age 65 years and older – RSV causes upwards of 120,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths every year in the U.S. Those at highest risk of severe outcomes related to RSV include older adults with chronic heart or lung disease, and/or weakened immune systems. Learn more about older adults at the highest risk for RSV here.   

People of any age can be infected with RSV. In healthy adults, RSV often looks like a common cold. – but RSV can be transmitted to others just like flu, COVID, or other infectious diseases. It can spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, as well as through contact with contaminated surfaces. 

RSV disproportionately affects infants & children of color. Learn more about the health disparities impacting infants with RSV from Dr. Whitley-Williams:

How do I know if I or my child has RSV?

Common symptoms of RSV include:  

  • Fever  
  • Runny or stuffy nose  
  • Cough  
  • Shortness of breath  
  • Wheezing  

If someone is sick and having difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away. Additional warning signs include blue lips or face, irritability, decreased activity, decreased appetite, and apnea (temporary stopping of breathing). RSV can lead to bronchiolitis (inflammation in the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection in the lung).  

Have you read:

Why are there so many cases of RSV this season?

Prevention measures that we used during the COVID pandemic, like wearing a mask, staying home, and keeping six feet apart, worked well to reduce the spread of many other viruses . But with the relaxation of these precautions, viruses have come back in full force.  

In the U.S., RSV typically circulates during the fall and winter months. This season, RSV has hit the U.S. hard, circulating with flu and COVID-19 and causing what some medical experts have referred to as a “tripledemic.” As a result, many children’s hospitals have been overwhelmed.  

Can RSV be prevented?

Currently, there is no vaccine readily available to prevent RSV, though the first RSV vaccine was approved by the FDA for adults 60+ in May 2023. It has not yet been recommended for use by the CDC, though we expect it will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and will provide updates as it continues through the regulatory process.

There is one other approved medication to help prevent RSV, and it is available only for high-risk babies including some preterm infants and infants with congenital diseases.  

The good news is that there soon may be several more medical tools approved by the FDA to prevent RSV infection, including vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.  

  • Monoclonal antibodies (also referred to as mAbs) give your body temporary protection against a disease. They use proteins to mimic antibodies that help our bodies prevent and fight off disease. One mAb product has been accepted by the FDA for review, with others at various in various stages of clinical trials. The current product under consideration would be used in babies and children under 24 months during their first RSV season.
  • Vaccines against RSV are also under review by the FDA – one of which is being studied for use in pregnant people to provide protection to babies, with positive results so far 

While we wait for vaccines and mAbs, you can take steps to protect yourself, your family, and your community. You can stop the spread of RSV by wearing masks, keeping your distance from people who are sick, washing your hands often, and disinfecting surfaces regularly.

Bookmark this page as we will update it as treatments and vaccines become available! 

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