How the RSV Vaccine Can Protect You and Your Loved Ones

August 2024

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized due to complications from respiratory illnesses, such as the flu and COVID-19. That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months get an annual flu vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine. Now there’s a vaccine available for a third disease that can cause hospitalizations and death — respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

What is RSV?

RSV is a common respiratory disease that circulates primarily in the fall and winter. RSV spreads the same way the flu does, and its symptoms are similar: coughing, sneezing, fever, a runny nose, and a decreased appetite.

Most people think of RSV as dangerous only for babies and toddlers, since the disease is often like a cold for most people. But as adults grow older — especially once they’re over 60 — their immune systems become less efficient at fighting off illness. Even older adults who are healthy and active have immune systems that are less effective at clearing the body of infections.

RSV and older adults

The weakening of the immune system as people age means that RSV becomes more serious as people get older. The virus hospitalizes 60,000 to 160,000 adults and kills 6,000 to 10,000 older adults every year, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. These numbers might even be underestimated, since RSV testing in hospitals is not as common as flu and COVID-19 testing.

In 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first two RSV vaccines for people aged 60 and older. The CDC now recommends that adults aged 60 and older get the RSV vaccine.

RSV and infants

RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis — an infection of the lung’s tiny airways — and pneumonia in children under the age of one.

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, about 58,000 to 80,000 children in the U.S. are hospitalized for RSV each year, and about 100 to 300 children die from RSV annually. Since it’s difficult to develop vaccines for newborns, scientists have developed a vaccine to give to pregnant women. During pregnancy, antibodies from the mother are transferred from the placenta to the growing baby.

In August 2023, the FDA approved an RSV vaccine for women between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. If a mother doesn’t get the RSV vaccine during pregnancy, their baby can get a monoclonal antibody called nirsevimab, which helps protect infants under eight months old from RSV.

In addition, it is recommended that children aged 8 to 19 months get nirsevimab if they are at increased risk for severe RSV disease and are entering their second RSV season. This group includes certain children with chronic lung disease from premature birth or cystic fibrosis, children with severe immunocompromising conditions, and American Indian/Alaskan Native children.

Other ways to help prevent RSV

Since RSV is a respiratory virus, everyday hygiene measures can lower the likelihood of you or your loved one developing an RSV infection.

  • Stay home when sick and keep children home from school.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your shirt sleeve.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water — or use hand sanitizer when handwashing is not possible.
  • During cold and flu season, reduce close contact with others as much as possible.
  • Refrain from touching your face or others’ faces with your hands if you haven’t just washed them.
  • Regularly clean surfaces that people touch often, such as counters, doorknobs, remote controls, and other electronic devices.

If you have questions about the RSV vaccine or other prevention guidance, your pharmacist can help.

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