Never heard of respiratory syncytial virus? You’re not alone.
Most people who come down with this common infection of the lungs and respiratory tract just think they have a regular head cold, since symptoms are usually mild. But for some people, respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV, as it’s mostly commonly called) can quickly turn serious.
In fact, more than 57,000 children under the age of 5 and some 175,000 adults over 65 are hospitalized each year due to RSV in the U.S. And some 14,000 elderly die from the infection annually.
Here’s another eye-opening fact about RSV: Chances are you’ve likely had it—and didn’t know.
“RSV is so common that most children have been infected with it by age 2,” says , Vice President, Disease Area Research & Development Leader, Respiratory Infections, Alios BioPharma, Inc., part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.
Now that October—and RSV Awareness Month—is upon us, and with it the start of winter germs season, we’ve rounded up some handy information to help expand your know-how about the virus.
Most people think of RSV as a disease that mainly affects babies and toddlers, and although it’s true that these little patients do tend to be most susceptible to contracting the virus, plenty of adults—especially if they have pre-existing conditions—can get sick with RSV.
“We repeatedly get RSV infections throughout our entire adult life,” says Symons, who leads the company’s program to develop RSV treatments. “In otherwise healthy adults, it’s not really a problem because symptoms are usually mild, like that of a cold. But if you’re over age 65 and have chronic heart or lung problems, or are immunocompromised because of another condition, you’re more at risk of developing complications from RSV, such as pneumonia.”
Symons’ own father, then 78, was actually hospitalized as a result of RSV. “He had been a lifelong smoker and had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which already affected his breathing,” Symons says. “He came down with what seemed like a cold, but by the next day, he was in a hospital emergency room on supplemental oxygen due to RSV.”
The onset of RSV is much like that of your average cold—early symptoms include a runny nose, a decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing and a fever. However, unlike a cold, RSV can very rapidly spread from the nose and throat into the lower respiratory tract, where the infection can cause inflammation in the tissues of the lungs and tiny bronchial air tubes.
So how can you tell the difference?
“Most people with RSV will feel pretty terrible for 10 days instead of the two to three that are typical with the common cold,” Symons says, adding that some people can experience coughing and wheezing that’s so severe it can be difficult to get enough oxygen.
Like the influenza virus, the peak season for contracting RSV runs from late October to early April in the U.S. The one exception: Florida, which sees cases throughout the year, thanks in large part to its higher temperatures and humidity.
Currently, there’s no specific treatment regimen for an RSV infection. For mild cases, over-the-counter medications can help alleviate such symptoms as a runny nose, cough and fever. To relieve congestion and help improve breathing in a baby, you can clear mucus from the nose with a bulb syringe or over-the-counter saline spray.
At-risk individuals should be carefully monitored. And if you notice such symptoms as abnormally fast breathing or a “caving-in” of the chest in between the ribs and under the ribs (a sign that someone may not be receiving adequate oxygen), contact a doctor immediately.
“Patients admitted to the hospital can get supplemental oxygen and nutrition so their bodies can better recover and muster strength to fight the virus, but that standard of healthcare isn’t available worldwide,” Symons says. “That’s why it’s a major cause of death in developing countries.”
According to some research, almost 200,000 children die from RSV annually—and 99% of those deaths occur in developing countries.
The virus can be spread through coughing and sneezing, or by touching infected surfaces.
Children under the age 2 who are at high risk of serious complications from the RSV virus—such as babies born prematurely or infants who have congenital heart or lung disease—can receive a preventative monthly injection for five months during RSV season.
You can also take other basic preventative steps to help reduce the risk of infection, including frequent hand-washing, limiting your baby’s exposure to sick people, washing toys regularly, and frequently cleaning such high-traffic areas as doorknobs that can easily be contaminated.
Symons’ research & development team is investigating medications aimed at preventing the RSV virus from replicating, as well as medications that can help prevent the virus from entering cells.
Researchers—including those at Janssen Vaccines—are also working to find an RSV vaccine that can be used for babies, the elderly and other vulnerable adults.
“It’s important to keep developing new preventative methods and treatments,” says Symons, “that will help protect the most at-risk people from this potentially devastating disease.”