Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a disease that primarily affects infants and children. While more children and infants contract the virus, over 177,000 adults over the age of 65 are hospitalized with severe RSV infection in the U.S. each year. Understanding the impact of RSV in older adults has opened the doors to potential new treatment and prevention options.
What is RSV?
As with its name, RSV is a respiratory virus that affects the lungs and breathing passages. Symptoms usually appear 2 to 8 days after exposure and are mild, often mimicking those of the common cold, including:
- Runny nose
- Decrease in appetite
The illness typically lasts 3 to 7 days, which is the time a person is most contagious. The RSV season peaks in the United States during fall through spring. It is spread through close contact with the respiratory droplets from an infected person coughing and sneezing or touching objects like doorknobs with the virus.
The CDC recommends avoiding close contact with individuals who are sick, washing your hands often, and sanitizing frequently touched areas often as some of the ways to prevent RSV.
Why is RSV Dangerous in Older Adults?
RSV infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia (infection of the lungs) or bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs. For several reasons, older adults (especially those 65 and up) are at greater risk for serious complications from RSV. Most are age-related factors such as a decline in immune system function. Most older adults also have decreased respiratory muscle strength and protective mucus levels, which affect the expansion capability of the lungs.
Signs and symptoms of severe RSV infection:
- Severe cough
- Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
- Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen
Severe RSV infection may require hospitalization if a person has trouble breathing or is dehydrated. In the most severe cases, a person may require supplemental oxygen or a breathing machine to help their body get the oxygen it needs.
RSV is a disease for which there is only supportive care through treating the symptoms of older adults with the illness. However, potential RSV vaccines are currently being evaluated in clinical research studies. This is vital because typically, when you contract an illness, you gain antibodies that protect you to an extent against re-infection. With RSV, individuals do not form long-lasting immunity, so they can be repeatedly infected during their lifetime.
A vaccine would be a game-changer, especially in our most vulnerable populations. RSV vaccine studies are enrolling for adults over 60 here at Seattle Clinical Research Center. To learn more, contact us at (206) 522-3330 or visit our website today!