Chances are, if you take care of young children—or have just been a bit on edge about this year’s cold and flu season—you’ve heard a lot about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) lately. RSV isn’t exactly new: It’s a common virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms. That said, very young children and older adults face a higher risk of getting really, really sick from it.
This year, RSV is surging beyond expected case counts; in fact, it’s starting to overwhelm many hospitals, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In October, RSV caused a spike in pediatric hospitalizations that pushed some children’s medical centers to capacity. This is becoming a bigger concern everywhere, but the situation is especially bad in certain parts of the country. For instance, Orange County, California, recently declared a health emergency, and every single pediatric hospital bed in the state of Rhode Island was full this week, according to reporting from NBC News.
As infections continue to spread, you may be wondering: Can adults get RSV from children? Rest assured that most of us have been exposed to the virus before—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be super aware of its impact right now, especially if you have vulnerable loved ones around. Below, what you should know about RSV in adults, including common symptoms and how you can reduce your risk of catching—and transmitting—this virus.
Can adults get RSV from kids?
First, some important context: You’ve likely already been infected with RSV. “Almost everyone sees RSV by the time they’re two and develops antibodies,” Thomas Russo, MD, an infectious disease expert at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells SELF.
But, as is the case with most respiratory viruses, your immunity to RSV wanes over time, meaning you’ll likely get infected again and again over the course of your life. This is especially true for parents or other caregivers of young kids. “Since children get RSV in their first two years of life, they’re at a dependent stage of their lives, and parents are going to be in close contact,” Dr. Russo says.
So, yes, adults can get RSV from children who have the virus and vice versa; it can be transmitted back and forth from anyone who is infected with it. RSV is typically spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes around others, per the CDC. You can also contract the virus by touching or kissing the face of a child (or anyone else) who has it. RSV can also live on surfaces, like doorknobs, so you can also become infected with it by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose with unwashed hands.
Again, most generally healthy adults won’t get severely ill from RSV—but they can still spread the virus to other people who may face a higher risk. “Whether it’s flu, RSV, or COVID, the high-risk groups are quite the same,” William Schaffner, MD, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells SELF. In addition to infants and young children, adults who are 65 or older, have chronic heart or lung disease, or have a weakened immune system are more likely to develop severe RSV symptoms or complications.
Are RSV symptoms different in adults compared to kids?
The most common RSV symptoms—which include fever, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, fatigue, and decreased appetite—tend to overlap in children and adults, Dr. Schaffner says. Symptoms usually show up four to six days after the initial infection, per the CDC. (Infants can experience a unique set of symptoms, though, including fussiness, irritability, loss of interest in activities, and changes in breathing patterns, per the Cleveland Clinic.)