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

Both children and adults can get RSV, but symptoms are generally mild.

Respiratory syncytial virus, aka RSV, is a respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. RSV infection is quite common in young children. According to a 2019 article published by Therapeutic Advances in Infectious Disease, almost all children will get sick with RSV at least once before they reach the age of 2.

Children aren't the only ones who can get RSV—adults can too. And while you can catch RSV any time of the year, your chances of being infected are higher during certain seasons, particularly the fall and winter. That said, in 2021, a spike in RSV infections during the spring and summer signaled a shift in the virus' seasonality, a 2022 study published in the journal Infectious Disease found.

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, told Health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brancato said, there was almost no RSV due to people staying indoors. But that all changed when people began to resume their lives again.

This article discusses everything you need to know about RSV, including how it spreads and the symptoms it causes. It also covers who is most at-risk for RSV infection, along with how you can reduce your risk of getting it.

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, the Centers for Disease Control says. 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 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.

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. People with more severe infections may become dehydrated or experience trouble breathing, in which case they will need to be treated at the hospital.

How Contagious Is RSV?

"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, told Health.

"It's one of the most contagious respiratory viruses out there," Dr. Brancato said. "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, the chances of getting RSV during the summer months have increased since 2021. So it's important that you take steps to protect yourself from infection not just in the winter—but all year round.

Can Adults Get RSV From Kids?

Unfortunately, yes. "Adults can absolutely get RSV from kids," Dr. Fisher said. 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 said. "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 said. 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 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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