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2023 RSV in Adults: The 2 Vaccines That Can Help

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Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is often thought of as a childhood illness. And, in fact, most children have been infected with the highly contagious virus by age 2.

Adults, however, are far from immune from this common virus that affects the lungs and respiratory tract. That means everyone – not just parents of young children -- should take heed of the Centers for Disease Control warning that RSV cases are on the rise in some parts of the country, including the Southeast.

Another common misconception is that RSV is a mild respiratory illness. While that’s true in many cases, for certain adults, including those over 60 and those who have chronic (ongoing) underlying lung disease, heart disease or diabetes, RSV can be serious. Even deadly.

Each year, an estimated 60,000 to 160,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized and 6,000 to 10,000 die due to RSV infection, according to the CDC.

The good news is that vaccines are available to help prevent at-risk adults from RSV.

RSV symptoms

Adults with RSV typically feel like they have a cold, with symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, cough and a headache. In many cases, the symptoms last from two to eight days. While there is no specific remedy for the illness, doctors recommend treating mild cases much like a common cold: plenty of fluids, rest, and over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

The symptoms can be much worse for older adults and those who are immunocompromised. For those people, RSV can lead to a lung infection such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

It can also worsen existing conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and congestive heart failure.

Signs that you should seek immediate medical care for RSV include shortness of breath, a fever, bluish tint to your skin, wheezing and a worsening cough, according to the American Lung Association.

‘Tis the season

RSV season typically starts in the fall and peaks in winter. But outbreak timing and severity can vary geographically and from season to season.

In 2022, RSV cases began to rise during the summer and peaked in October and November, which was earlier than usual.

Experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic altered the normal RSV season. A historically low number of RSV cases were reported in the 2020-21 season.

Some scientists believe steps taken to avoid COVID lessened the spread of RSV that season and created what they referred to as an “immunity gap.” With COVID precautions lessened in 2021, the 2021-22 season saw nearly pre-pandemic case numbers but an earlier onset and peak.

Many experts predict the 2023-2024 will be more like those before the pandemic.

RSV defense

In 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two vaccines to help adults ward off RSV: Arexvy and Abrysvo.

Both vaccines contain a part of the RSV virus. Both work by causing an immune response that can protect you from respiratory disease if you are infected with RSV in the future.

One dose of RSV vaccine provides protection against the disease for at least two winter seasons.

The CDC recommends that people 60 years and older talk with their health care provider about whether RSV vaccination is right for them. Most retail pharmacies carry the RSV vaccine. If you or over the age of 60 and especially if you have medical conditions it is important to get the vaccine before we see additional cases so you can develop immunity in time for the holiday season.

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