Can Adults Get RSV From Kids? Here's What to Know About This Contagious Virus That's on the Rise

Doctors don't know why this virus is spiking in children right now.

Respiratory syncytial virus, aka RSV, is skyrocketing across the country right now, a time of year when cases should be nonexistent. Hospitals have reported an increase of RSV diagnosed in children, and on July 24 more than 34% of antigen tests for the virus came back positive, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Basically, there's a lot of RSV floating around out there, and doctors and researchers are wondering why.

Usually by the summer, "everybody who is going to get it that year has gotten it already," John Brancato, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Connecticut Children's, tells Health. "There was almost no RSV last year due to people staying in because of the pandemic," he says. "This year, there's a lot of susceptibility to it as people are resuming their lives."

RSV is a contagious virus; it tends to spread pretty rapidly in kids and can infect adults, too. Here's what you need to know about this virus and if you're at risk of catching it from children.

Is RSV Contagious? Here's What Experts Say
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What is RSV, exactly?

RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the CDC. It's the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) and pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs) in kids under the age of one in the US.

RSV is spread through infected droplets that you can breathe in, the CDC explains. You can also get RSV from touching an infected surface that someone has coughed or sneezed on, and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Most people get better after a week or so, but RSV can be serious, especially in infants and the elderly. RSV is common: Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday, the CDC says.

What are the symptoms of RSV?

People usually develop symptoms of RSV between four to six days after they're infected, the CDC says. Those symptoms can include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

The symptoms may not show up all at once, and usually roll out in stages.

How contagious is RSV?

It's really contagious. "It's not quite as contagious as the COVID-19 Delta variant, but it's very contagious through infected droplets in the same way that a lot of respiratory viruses are contagious," Danelle Fisher, MD, pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health.

"It's one of the most contagious respiratory viruses out there," Dr. Brancato says. "In most years, we have a large number of patients who come into our emergency department for evaluation in fall through winter because of RSV."

But again, this year, RSV is really taking off across the country during the summer. "It's thriving right now," Dr. Fisher says.

Can adults get RSV from kids?

Unfortunately, yes. "Adults can absolutely get RSV from kids," Dr. Fisher says. It just might look a little different in an adult.

"When adults get RSV, they tend to get symptoms of the common cold," Dr. Fisher says. "When kids get it, they tend to get signs of the common cold, plus wheezing."

If you're otherwise healthy and you get RSV, "you'll feel like you have a cold—nothing more serious than that," Dr. Brancato says. But if you have a chronic lung or heart condition, or a weakened immune system, the CDC says you're at risk of developing a more serious form of RSV. That can include coming down with pneumonia, more severe symptoms if you have asthma or COPD, and even congestive heart failure, which is when your heart can't pump blood and oxygen to your tissues.

How to lower your risk of RSV

If you're worried about getting RSV, the CDC says there are a few things you can do to lower your risk of getting the virus:

Wash your hands often

That means really washing them, like with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. When soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Don't touch your face

Try to keep your unwashed hands off your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick

Don't kiss or share cups or utensils with people who have cold-like symptoms.

Clean and disinfect surfaces regularly

It's a good idea to regularly clean high-touch surfaces at your place, like doorknobs, toys, and countertops.

Again, if you happen to get RSV, don't panic: The odds are high you'll be fine—just a little stuffy.

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