Along with the flu and common cold, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is fairly common during the fall and winter months. In most cases, symptoms are mild and dissipate within a week or so. In other cases, however, symptoms can be severe and even worsen existing medical conditions. Let’s discuss who should get the RSV vaccine so you and your loved ones stay protected.
What is RSV?
RSV is a highly contagious virus that primarily affects the respiratory tract. It is a very common childhood illness, with most children having contracted the virus at some point before age 2. It is typically spread by direct contact with someone who is infected (via coughing or sneezing). It may also be spread through touch, in some cases. For example, if a person touches an infected door knob and then touches his or her face before handwashing.
Symptoms of RSV are very similar to the common cold: sneezing, runny nose, loss of appetite, and a cough are often present. The symptoms will usually go away on their own with self-care (i.e. fluids, over-the-counter meds, and rest).
Rarely, RSV will progress to the lower respiratory tract and cause severe illness. This is most frequently observed in infants, older adults, and those with certain pre-existing medical conditions (see below0.
Who Should Get the RSV Vaccine?
At present, a vaccine is available for adults who are at increased risk of contracting severe RSV. These include:
- Adults over 60 years of age
- Adults who have compromised immune systems
- Adults who have chronic lung disease or heart disease
- Adults who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
Is There a RSV Vaccine For Children?
As many as 80,000 children 5 years and younger are hospitalized every year with RSV complications. Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine approved for children to prevent or reduce the severity of RSV. However, there are two products known as “monoclonal antibody” agents that can help protect children from experiencing severe RSV.
Complications in infants and very young children from RSV can be fatal. For this reason, your doctor may advise that you give one of the available monoclonal antibody products to your child, especially if:
- Your infant is premature
- Your child has a neuromuscular disorder, such as those that prevent or cause difficulty swallowing
- Your child is younger than 2 and has chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease
- Your child has a weakened immune system
- Your baby is under 8 months old and entering his or her first RSV season
What About RSV While Pregnant?
Although there is no vaccine yet for children, the FDA very recently approved the first RSV vaccine able to be administered to pregnant individuals during their third trimester (32 to 36 weeks). Like other vaccines given while pregnant, the one-time dose will allow mothers to impart a passive immunity to the virus while in-utero.
The vaccine given to pregnant women is the same as the one given to adults 60+, with similar side effects being reported.
What Kind of Vaccine is the RSV Vaccine?
The RSV vaccine is a subunit vaccine: it contains harmless copies of a protein used by RSV to attack human cells. This protein, known as “prefusion F,” has a distinct crystalline structure that the vaccine mimics in order to boost the body’s protection in case of contact with the actual viral protein.
Are There Side Effects to the RSV Shot?
Like all vaccines, the RSV vaccine may have certain side effects. These are generally mild and infinitely preferable to contracting severe RSV. The most common reported side effects include:
- Pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site
- Muscle/joint pain
When Can You Get the RSV Vaccine?
The vaccine is available already at many locations, with a majority of major pharmacies (CVS, Rite-Aid, and Walgreens) planning to have it in stock by early Fall. Most will be offering flu shots and COVID shots alongside the RSV vaccine.
Will You Need a Booster Every Year?
So far, studies indicate that a single dose of the RSV vaccine should be sufficient. There is no need for an annual booster.
Stay Healthy This Winter
As the colder months approach, take steps to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy. In addition to scheduling your vaccines, be sure to complete your annual wellness exam with your primary care physician. Ask about lifestyle modifications, supplementation, and other methods to help boost your immune system.
Dr. Tim Tuel is our board-certified family physician at the Crane Center. He is a highly skilled and compassionate physician who will make sure you have all the tools you need to stay well this winter. Call or go online today to schedule an appointment.