RSV Vaccines: What You Need to Know to Stay Healthy This Season

January 3, 2024
man wearing bandage from a shot

You’ve probably had a terrible cough, sore throat, or runny nose at some point in the last few years. It may have been RSV, a common respiratory illness that can be especially dangerous for infants, young children, and older adults. But now, there’s hope.

In May 2023, the FDA approved the first RSV vaccine for adults and children, a significant milestone in the fight against this virus.

Here’s everything you need to know about RSV and the RSV vaccine, including who can get it, how it works, and when it’s available.

What Is RSV?

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common respiratory illness affecting people of all ages. But it’s most serious in infants under 12 months old, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems.

“RSV causes severe illness in people with chronic underlying conditions, particularly in people with heart disease like congestive heart failure, lung disease, such as COPD, and diabetes,” added Michael Roshon, MD/PhD, Emergency Physician and VP of Research, CommonSpirit Mountain Region.

RSV can start out with mild symptoms like a cough, sore throat, and runny nose. But in some cases, it can lead to more severe problems like bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

Common symptoms of RSV include:

  • Coughing and sore throat
  • Low-grade fever
  • Congested or runny nose and sneezing
  • Headache and irritability
  • Poor feeding (in infants)
  • Short, shallow, rapid breathing (in infants)

According to the American Lung Association, RSV is the leading cause of infant hospitalization. Almost all infants are infected with RSV at least once by the time they’re two years old, and the infection often recurs throughout childhood and possibly into adulthood.

The good news is that most cases of RSV are mild and resolve on their own within a week or two.

RSV Prevention and Treatment

RSV can be a scary virus, but it’s important to remember that there are things we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones. By taking preventive measures, such as washing our hands often and avoiding close contact with people who are sick, we can help to reduce the spread of the virus.

What Is the RSV Vaccine?

RSV vaccines are available for adults and pregnant people.

Adults 60 Years Old and Over

There are two RSV vaccines available for people aged 60 and older:

  • Arexvy (GSK adjuvanted RSV vaccine): This vaccine uses the same adjuvant (a substance that helps the body respond better to a vaccine) as the Shingrix shingles vaccine.
  • Abrysvo (Pfizer RSV vaccine): This vaccine does not contain an adjuvant but is bivalent, meaning it protects against two strains of RSV.

“The new Arexvy vaccine is available for anyone aged 60 or over, which is significant because while most people associate RSV as a disease in young children, most of the severe disease is in people over age 65,” said Dr. Roshon.

Dr. Roshon recommends anyone over the age of 60 with chronic conditions or if immunocompromised to consider the RSV vaccine.

“This vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization by more than 90%, which should really ease the burden of disease and the stress on the hospital systems in our community,” he said.

Pregnant People

Abrysvo is the only RSV vaccine recommended during pregnancy. It’s a single-dose shot given between weeks 32 and 36 of pregnancy to maximize the transfer of protective antibodies from the mother to the baby.

Is There an RSV Vaccine for Infants and Toddlers?

Nirsevimab can help protect infants from RSV infection.

The CDC recommends one dose of nirsevimab for all infants under eight months old born during or entering their first RSV season. Children between eight and 19 months old at high risk of severe RSV disease may also need a dose in their second season.

RSV Vaccine Side Effects

The RSV vaccine, like any other vaccine, can have some side effects. Dr. Roshon said most patients will experience mild symptoms like soreness at the injection site or muscle pain.

The CDC lists the following as potential additional side effects of the RSV vaccine:

  • Fatigue or feeling tired
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

In rare cases, severe allergic reactions may occur.

Where to Get the RSV Vaccine

You can get the RSV vaccine Abrysvo at CommonSpirit Health pharmacies in Colorado and Kansas.

Patients 65 and over can receive the vaccine at any pharmacy.

Patients 60-64 years old and pregnant patients 32-36 weeks gestation may need prior authorization from their insurance company.

You can check with your doctor or other healthcare provider to see where you can get the vaccine.

Content previously shared in The Denver Post