Family Health|Prevention and Wellness|Seniors|Staying Healthy
respiratory|RSV

RSV in Adults Over 60

Last Updated April 2024 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, is a common virus that affects the lungs and breathing passages. The virus is common in children under 2; however, people of all ages can get it. Older adults (above the age of 60) are at higher risk for severe RSV infection. This is especially true if they already have heart and lung disease.

Symptoms of RSV in adults over 60

People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within 4 to 6 days after getting infected. RSV symptoms are different based on age. For older adults, symptoms can be similar to a cold and may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Wheezing

RSV symptoms may not happen all at once. Or you may have some symptoms and not others.

What causes RSV in adults over 60?

RSV is a virus and is contagious. It can be spread through sneezing, coughing, sharing food, cups, and kissing a person with the virus. In public, it can be spread when you touch your nose and mouth after coming into contact with a person who has the virus. RSV spreads in crowded areas. This includes assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

Adults at the highest risk for severe RSV infection include:

  • Older adults
  • Adults with chronic heart or lung disease
  • Adults with weakened immune systems
  • Adults with certain other underlying medical conditions
  • Adults living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities

How is RSV diagnosed?

If you are sick and have RSV symptoms, your doctor will do a physical exam. Tests to detect RSV may include a rapid lab test (swabbing your nose), a chest X-ray (to check for pneumonia), and a blood test to check for dehydration.

Infographic showing symptoms and risk factors for RSV in adults over 60

Can RSV be prevented or avoided in adults over 60?

In May 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine for RSV. If you are an adult who is 60 or older, there are two vaccines licensed by the FDA.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAF) recommends adults 60 years of age and older receive a single dose of the RSV vaccine. The AAFP’s recommendation is consistent with recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which have both endorsed use of new RSV vaccines for people ages 60 years and older. Patients over 60 should talk to their family physician or other clinician about whether the RSV vaccination is right for them.

In addition to the vaccine, you can also reduce your risk of getting the RSV virus—or spreading it to others—by following these tips:

  • Wash your hands with soap, frequently.
  • Don’t go to work, school, or public places if you are sick. RSV spreads quickly in large crowds.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow when you sneeze or cough. Don’t use your hands.
  • Don’t share food, drinks, or eating utensils.
  • Don’t kiss when you are sick.
  • Don’t share or touch used tissues.
  • Don’t shake hands if you are sick.
  • Don’t touch a baby if you are sick.
  • Wash your eating utensils with hot, soapy water.

RSV treatment for adults over 60

Because RSV is a virus, it cannot be treated with an antibiotic. If you have a mild case, it will likely go away on its own in a week or two. However, if your infection is more severe, it may require hospitalization. In the hospital, you may be treated with oxygen an intravenous (IV) fluids. In rare but life-threatening cases, a patient may need to be placed on a ventilator (a machine that helps breathing).

Living with RSV

A mild case of RSV is like having a cold for 2 weeks. Those who have to be hospitalized will experience more discomfort (difficulty breathing). Most people who have RSV fully recover. However, there is a risk for longer-term lung damage, but this is not common in older adults.

Questions for your doctor

  • Can I get RSV more than once?
  • How long does the RSV vaccine protect me?
  • Will I need a booster shot?
  • Are there any over-the-counter medicines that help relieve RSV symptoms?
  • Am I at higher risk of getting a severe infection from RSV?

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV)

National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

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