Recent headlines this fall and winter have been focused a great deal on the respiratory syncytial virus—also known as RSV. The virus is not only highly infectious but can also lead to hospitalization or even death for those in at-risk populations, such as infants and older adults.
While no vaccine currently exists to help protect against RSV, drug maker Pfizer announced earlier this month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given priority review status to a newly developed RSV vaccine for older adults.
Priority review status helps to speed up the approval process. Pfizer reports that the FDA’s goal date for a decision on the vaccine is May 2023.
The proposed vaccine has already gone through the clinical trials process, and the recent phase three trial included 37,000 people 60 years and older who took a single dose of the vaccine or a placebo. In August, the company announced the trial showed an efficacy of more than 85%, and that the vaccine was well-tolerated.
How does RSV affect older adults?
While RSV is a common virus and most people recover within a couple weeks, an RSV infection can nevertheless lead to bronchitis and even pneumonia. And the CDC reports that older adults are in the highest risk group. The risk grows when other health concerns are present. RSV can severely worsen existing health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Older adults who get very sick from RSV may need to be hospitalized,” the report states. “Some may even die. Older adults are at greater risk than young adults for serious complications from RSV because our immune systems weaken when we are older.”
The CDC reports that between 60,000 and 120,000 older adults are hospitalized annually due to RSV, and between 6,000 and 10,000 die from it each year.
How can I minimize risk?
If you’re at risk, or interact with someone in a high-risk population, the CDC recommends taking precautions::
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Avoid close contact with people who have cold-like symptoms.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve when coughing or sneezing.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, to remove any RSV germs that might have been left behind.
- Stay home if you’re sick to reduce transmitting the virus to others.
RSV enters the body through the eyes, nose or mouth, including breathing in infected respiratory droplets or direct contact, such as shaking an infected person’s hand. The report adds that a person is most contagious during the first week after infection.
It’s possible to get RSV more than once in a season. Repeat infections usually aren’t as severe, but older adults remain at a higher risk than the general population.
What are the symptoms of RSV?
Signs of RSV infection usually appear four to six days following exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Mild cases will start with typical cold symptoms, such as congestion, a dry cough, low-grade fever, sore throat, sneezing or headache.
Severe cases that spread to the lower respiratory tract can cause bronchitis and/or pneumonia. Those symptoms include:
- Severe cough
- Wheezing while breathing out
- Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing, especially when lying down
- Bluish color to the skin from lack of oxygen
Severe symptoms warrant consultation with a doctor and potential hospitalization.