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Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory infections

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) can affect anyone. It is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract infections, and if left untreated can be very dangerous for adults with underlying health issues. Learn if you are at risk of contracting RSV and how you can protect yourself.

What is RSV?

RSV is a common virus that can infect your airways and lungs. It is highly contagious and spreads easily through droplets from the nose and throat when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus most often affects young children, however anyone can get RSV.

For most adults, RSV presents as a common cold with mild symptoms, like:

  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

RSV symptoms typically last from two to eight days though they can last longer, especially when they lead to a worsening of symptoms associated with an existing condition.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can contract RSV, however some people are at higher risk of becoming severely unwell, potentially resulting in hospitalisation.

They include:

  • Adults with chronic lung or heart disease
  • Adults with a weakened immune system
  • All older adults, especially those over 65 years of age.

Fatigue, poor health or poor hygiene can also increase your chances of catching RSV.

There were 127,934 confirmed cases of RSV in Australia in 2023.

How is it diagnosed?

RSV can be diagnosed through:

  • A nasal swab taken from your nose and throat which is tested in a laboratory
  • A blood test to identify if you have antibodies to the virus
  • A home testing kit which may test for a range of viruses including RSV, influenza and COVID-19.

How is RSV treated?

There is no specific treatment for RSV. Antibiotics do not work against RSV as it is a virus. Rest and hydration are best for managing mild symptoms. You can manage fever and pain with over-the-counter medications. Most RSV infections will go away on their own within 7-14 days. However, for those at high risk of a severe case, it is advisable to talk to your healthcare provider.

If you have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or asthma, be sure to maintain your use of prescribed medications, follow your action plan or seek help from your GP or specialist if you feel your medications may need to be adjusted.

When should I seek emergency care if I have RSV?

There are signs and symptoms that indicate you are experiencing more severe respiratory illness, and you should seek urgent medical attention. These symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • high fever
  • bluish tint to your skin
  • wheezing and worsening cough.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you should call Triple Zero 000 or go to hospital. You may be placed on supplemental oxygen.

In most severe cases, a person will require IV fluids or be administered additional oxygen.

Can I get vaccinated against RSV?

A vaccine was approved in January 2024 for use in Australia for people aged 60 years and over on private script. Discuss with a GP or pharmacists whether you should receive the vaccine.
Two other vaccines, including one that can be given to pregnant women for the protection of newborns, are likely to become available this year. For infants, an injected antibody (not a vaccine), is available for free in New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia. The antibody protects against RSV for at least 5 months after a single dose.

How can I protect myself from RSV if I have a lung disease?

If you are living with a lung condition, be aware that young children are most commonly infected with RSV. You may need to avoid young children when they are unwell with respiratory viruses to protect yourself. RSV is highly contagious, and you can be infectious with RSV for up to 10 days after symptoms start.

To prevent the spread of RSV:

  • Stay home when sick
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing into your elbow or a tissue (not your hand)
  • Wash your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds and use hand sanitiser when out and about
  • Wear a mask where possible
  • Avoid contact with anyone sick such as shaking hands, sharing cutlery or kissing.