Key Takeaways

  • Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that affects the lungs and breathing passageways.

  • Each year, between 60,000-160,000 older Americans are hospitalized for RSV and 6,000-10,000 die due to RSV infection.

  • Federal health officials recommend all adults age 60+ talk to their doctor about whether the RSV vaccine is right for them.

Each year, the cooling temperatures, falling leaves, and changing season remind us to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu. But if you’re an older adult, there’s another serious health threat you should be aware of: respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Can a 70-year-old get RSV? Yes. RSV can affect people of all ages—not just babies and young children. Each year, between 60,000-160,000 older Americans are hospitalized for RSV and 6,000-10,000 die due to RSV infection.1

The good news is there's now a vaccine available to help protect seniors who are most at risk for severe RSV disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all adults age 60+ talk to their doctor about whether the RSV vaccine is right for them.

What is respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV) is a common respiratory virus that affects the lungs and breathing passageways. It typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Like COVID and the flu, RSV is highly contagious. It spreads in two main ways:

  • By coming into contact (via mouth, nose, or eyes) with droplets from another person’s cough or sneeze
  • By directly touching a surface that has the virus living on it (e.g., a door handle), and then touching your face

While most people recover from RSV within a week or two, some are more likely to develop serious illness and complications. This includes older adults and infants age 6 months or younger.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

RSV symptoms in adults usually start within four to six days after getting infected with the virus. Signs of infection are similar to those of a common cold and may include:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing / barking cough
  • Loss of appetite

RSV is usually diagnosed based on reported symptoms, a physical exam, and the time of year (e.g., cold and flu season). A doctor may choose to perform a mouth swab or blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

What are the complications of RSV in older adults?

How serious is RSV in older adults? In people with certain risk factors, RSV infection can worsen and lead to complications such as:

  • Pneumonia and other lung infections
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma

These complications may require a person to be hospitalized, and in severe cases, can lead to death.

Who is the most vulnerable to RSV?

According to CDC, adults at highest risk for RSV complications include:

  • Those age 60+
  • People who live in long-term care facilities (e.g., nursing homes)
  • People with chronic medical conditions such as:
    • Diabetes
    • Heart, liver, or kidney disease
    • Weakened immune system
    • Hematologic disorders
    • Neurologic/neuromuscular conditions

Should seniors get the RSV vaccine?

Two single-dose vaccines are currently approved by the FDA to help prevent severe RSV in adults: Arexvy by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Abrysvo by Pfizer. These vaccines are recommended by CDC for people age 60+, “using shared clinical decision-making.” Shared decision-making is a process in which doctors and patients work together to decide the best course of action for that patient's health.

RSV vaccination should take place before the fall and winter RSV season arrives (September-January for most of the U.S.). CDC recommends eligible adults get their RSV shot as soon as vaccines become available.

Is one RSV vaccine better than the other? "The two vaccines have comparable levels of effectiveness," emergency physician Leana Wen, MD, told CNN Health. "I would get whichever one is readily available at your pharmacy or doctor’s office."

Getting the RSV vaccine should be a decision made between you and your doctor. Talk with your provider about your personal risk factors to decide if vaccination is the best option for you.

How effective is the RSV vaccine?

The RSV vaccines are reported to be highly effective in preventing severe RSV infection. A single dose of vaccine protects against RSV disease in adults age 60+ for at least two winter seasons. In trials, both RSV vaccines were 83%-89% effective in preventing RSV-related lung infections during the first RSV season after vaccination.

For the time being, only one dose of the RSV vaccine is advised for adults. Further studies will explore whether additional doses may be beneficial.

Is the RSV vaccine safe?

Based on clinical trial data, the RSV vaccines are generally considered to be safe for older adults. Side effects reported after vaccination are typically mild and temporary and include swelling at the injection site, headache, nausea, fever, and fatigue. “Overall, the vaccine seems to be pretty well tolerated,” Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo, told Prevention. “For the most part, these side effects are what we expect with most vaccines.”

You can get the RSV vaccine at the same time as other vaccines, but be aware that this could increase any side effects you experience. Check with your doctor about whether you should wait a few days to a week before getting your RSV vaccine after getting a COVID or flu shot.

Does Medicare cover the RSV vaccine?

If you have Medicare Part D, your plan should cover the RSV vaccine at no out-of-pocket cost to you. This means whoever administers the vaccine should not charge you a deductible or copayment. If you decide to get this vaccine at a pharmacy, make sure the pharmacy is included in your Part D network; if the pharmacy is not in your network, they can charge you for the vaccine. If you don’t have a Medicare Part D plan, you may be charged for the vaccine since Medicare Part B does not provide coverage for the RSV vaccine.

If you receive your drug coverage through your employer or another provider, check your plan to see if the RSV vaccine is covered.

Where is the RSV vaccine available?

You may be able to get your RSV vaccination at your doctor's office, your workplace, local pharmacies, community clinics, and other locations. Reach out to your state or local health department to find out about places that offer RSV vaccines in your area.

How do you prevent RSV naturally?

In addition to getting vaccinated, there are smart steps you can take every day to reduce your chances of an RSV infection:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Cover sneezes and coughs (with a tissue or sleeve, not your hands).
  • Avoid touching your face before washing your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Clean common surfaces often at home and/or at work.
  • Stay home if you're feeling ill.

Stay healthy by staying up to date on your vaccines

Getting routine vaccinations is a vital part of aging well. One reason is that we cannot fight off viruses as effectively as we age, which makes us more vulnerable to preventable illnesses like RSV, COVID-19, and influenza.

"Older adults are also at risk because of conditions they might have that impact their immune system and that weaken their immune system,” said Kathleen Cameron, Senior Director of NCOA's Center for Healthy Aging, in a video series from the National Health Council.

Through its Vaccine Uptake Initiative, funded by the U.S. Administration for Community Living, NCOA has called on its national network of senior centers and community-based organizations to help older adults and people with disabilities get their shots and protect their health—through cold and flu season and beyond.

To learn more about the immunizations recommended for older Americans, visit our Vaccines for Older Adults resource page.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). RSV in Older Adults and Adults with Chronic Medical Conditions. Found on the internet at