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RSV is on the rise among older adults as the hospitalization rate climbs to 10 times higher than usual 

November 15, 2022, 9:51 PM UTC
Mature woman blowing nose at home
RSV can be deadly for people 65 and older.
Jelena Stanojkovic—Getty Images

While children’s hospitals and pediatric offices across the country have seen a rise in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, this current wave is also impacting older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about six out of every 100,000 adults have been hospitalized with the virus—a rate that is 10 times higher than for this time of year, CNN reports.

“Along with the increase in RSV in children came an increase in RSV in adults,” explains Dr. Anh Le, a California-based pediatrician with One Medical, a membership-based primary-care practice. “The usual RSV season has been earlier than usual, as numbers started to increase in September. It’s likely that preventative measures related to COVID led to the shift in the season.”

RSV is generally a mild condition for adults who are healthy, says Le. However, for those who are 65 and older; have certain chronic conditions, such as heart or lung disease; and are immunocompromised, the virus could lead to more severe illness or death. Each year roughly 60,000 to 120,000 older adults in the U.S. are hospitalized with RSV and between 6,000 to 10,000 die because of RSV infection.

“This higher-risk population can develop pneumonia as a complication of RSV,” she says. “In addition, it can also aggravate conditions such as asthma and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] as well as congestive heart failure. All of these can lead to hospitalization, further compounding issues with already busy and full hospitals.”

RSV symptoms in adults are similar to those found in children—fever, runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, and wheezing. In most cases, symptoms will clear up in a week or two and are typically treated with plenty of fluids and rest, as there is currently no vaccine for RSV, although that could change by this time next year. Should symptoms worsen or you have shortness of breath, call your doctor or visit urgent care as soon as possible.

“There are treatments for RSV, but unlike COVID and flu, they are not easily available from a pharmacy,” explains Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and chief science officer at eMed. “They are monoclonal antibodies and work well, but are usually provided as shots or IV. Treatment needs to be started quickly to be effective.” 

In an effort to protect people who are at high risk for severe RSV infection, the CDC recommends that you wash your hands regularly, keep your hands off your face, avoid close contact with sick people, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, regularly clean and disinfect surfaces, and stay home when you are sick.

“RSV is spread through contact with other people who have RSV or through touching surfaces that have the virus on them, from people who have RSV. So it’s a really good idea to wash your hands to avoid these types of viruses,” Mina says. “Wearing masks, especially during this period of time where we have flu, RSV, and COVID circulating, is very helpful to avoid infection as well.”

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