Respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, is a lung infection that’s highly contagious.
“RSV is the poster child for what’s called paramyxoviruses, which is a family of viruses that can cause mild infections,” says pediatric infectious disease specialist Frank Esper, MD. “But in certain individuals, it can cause more significant breathing problems and pneumonia.”
And while you may have thought that RSV is only prevalent in infants and children, anyone can get RSV.
But is there a vaccine for RSV for adults?
Yes. While we’ve had vaccines for other viruses like COVID-19, the flu and chickenpox, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved an RSV vaccine.
Dr. Esper explains what we know about the vaccine and who is eligible to receive it.
Is there a vaccine for RSV in adults?
The FDA recently approved an RSV vaccine to be given as a single shot in adults 60 years or older.
“The FDA had to go through all the data and studies to look at the possibility of safety and efficacy,” explains Dr. Esper. “The trials of the adult vaccine have shown that these vaccines can be very, very safe and can be very effective in preventing RSV.”
A trial of the vaccine showed it was 83% effective in preventing a lower respiratory tract disease, which includes having at least two symptoms — for example, a worsening cough, wheezing, shortness of breath — for a day. Additionally, the vaccine was 94% effective at preventing severe disease that could lead to needing supplemental oxygen or a ventilator.
Dr. Esper says it’s hard to determine how long the protection will last with a vaccine, but he does see the potential for an RSV vaccine to become part of our annual vaccination, like the flu vaccination.
“I don’t see an RSV vaccine giving lifelong immunity like the measles vaccine or the chickenpox vaccine does,” he adds. “I think it’s likely going to be one of those situations where if you want to have continued protection, you’re going to need to get boosters.”
Does the flu vaccine protect against RSV?
Not all respiratory viruses are created equal, says Dr. Esper.
“It’s like saying you have a vaccine that prevents against bear attacks. But will it also protect against shark attacks? The answer is ‘no.’ A bear and a shark are completely different animals,” he explains. “The same thing goes for RSV and the flu. They both cause pneumonia and respiratory disease, but they’re very different beasts.”
The flu vaccine is developed to target a specific strain of influenza, while the RSV vaccine is crafted to deal particularly with RSV.
“You’re not going to get one vaccine that cures all,” says Dr. Esper. “You’re going to need a COVID-19 vaccine. You’re going to need a flu vaccine. And eventually, you’re going to need an RSV vaccine.”
Who is eligible for the vaccine?
The RSV vaccine is currently approved for adults 60 years old or older. But you can’t get it quite yet — a rollout of the vaccine is expected to happen in the fall.
And when that does happen, Dr. Esper sees the rollout of the RSV vaccine as being similar to the COVID-19 vaccine process, where the FDA first approves the vaccine for adults before moving the age requirement to children and infants.
“The goal is to get these RSV vaccines established with their effectiveness and their safety in people 60 years or older,” he says. “Then, we can start looking at younger age groups, eventually getting down to those infants, who are very affected by RSV. It’s going to be a very slow, methodical process.”
How to prevent the spread of RSV
In addition to receiving the RSV vaccine if you qualify, there are things you can do to prevent the spread of this highly contagious virus.
These steps may seem familiar, as they’re also recommended in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and the flu — but they’re highly effective when used:
- Wash your hands. Use soap and water and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer can also help protect you from germs. And do your best to keep your hands off your face.
- Cover your mouth or wear a mask. When you feel the urge to cough or sneeze, either use a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve to cover your mouth and nose.
- Practice social distancing. Maintain a safe distance — about 6 feet — when out in public areas.
- Stay home if you feel sick. If you don’t feel good, make sure you avoid going in to work or school, or going out in public.
“This virus loves to spread onto hands. And then, hands can move from person to person and place to place through contact,” says Dr. Esper. “So, washing your hands is one of the best things you could do.”