Can adults get RSV? Infections are common at all ages, the severity varies

  • Anyone can become infected with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
  • But the disease tends to hit babies and older adults harder than school-aged children and parents.
  • Common symptoms include runny nose, cough, sneezing, wheezing and fever.

Pediatricians across the country are concerned about the number of children developing severe cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and ICUs are filling up earlier than usual this fall — a trend that doctors believe is partly due to children returning to school and daycare with easing of COVID restrictions.

But young children aren’t the only ones getting RSV right now – their infections are especially noticeable. RSV can cause dangerous cases of bronchitis and pneumonia in young children, making it a leading cause of hospitalization for infants under 1 year of age. At least 100 children die from RSV each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One reason the disease hits babies so hard is because they have little to no immunity built up against the virus. In addition, their small size makes them particularly vulnerable.

“They’re wheezing and having trouble breathing — the tiny little airways are filling up with mucus,” Dr. Per Gesteland, a pediatric nurse practitioner at the University of Utah Health and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, told Insider.

You’ve probably had RSV in the past and will probably get it again

baby with tubes inside, doctor using machine

Some babies need help breathing when they have RSV.

Business Wire via Associated Press, Seattle Children’s

Normally, children get RSV at least once by the age of two, but this has not happened reliably during the pandemic as many daycares have been closed and caregivers covered. This means that some toddlers, too, have severe cases of RSV at this time—though most still have mild infections that can be treated at home. In addition to infants, RSV can also be fatal to adults over age 65, whose immune systems weaken as they age.

School-aged children, teenagers, and younger adults, on the other hand, may contract RSV and never know it. They may remain completely asymptomatic or else their symptoms are so mild that they mistake the disease for a common cold.

Symptoms of RSV often come in stages and may include:

  • Cough
  • Catarrh
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sneeze
  • Whistling

“There’s often this spread from younger kids taking it to school and the community and then bringing it home,” Gesteland said. “The baby may be overweight, and the parent may have a bit of a nasty cold, and the school-age child may have a moderately significant upper respiratory infection.”

Immunity does not last forever, and it is possible, although unusual, to get RSV twice in the same year. Usually when this happens, the second infection is milder.

Mothers may pass on some RSV immunity to their babies — but there’s no vaccine for it yet

doctor in mask, coat, walking in patient room

Dr. Melanie Kitagawa directs the pediatric intensive care unit at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Texas Children’s Hospital

It’s not just children who have avoided RSV infections in recent years. Many parents also spent at least a year avoiding RSV while covering up and distancing themselves for COVID, and this may have reduced the immunity that mothers normally pass on to their children.

Dr. Behnoosh Afghani, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UCI Health in Orange County, Calif., suspects that many babies and toddlers are exposed to RSV for the first time — without the usual protective antibodies that their mothers could transmit in utero or through the maternal milk, if they have recently had RSV.

There are some RSV vaccines in late development for pregnant women and older adults, but for now, RSV prevention comes down to basic hygiene tips we’ve all heard before: good hand washing, staying away from sick people, and being careful . the most vulnerable among us. Avoiding baby kisses during cold and flu season is key, doctors say.

“I don’t have some kind of golden tip to prevent all of this,” Dr. Melanie Kitagawa, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Texas Children’s Hospital, told Insider. “I just have to get the guys through and give their bodies time to fight this virus.”

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