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What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus. It is a seasonal virus and usually occurs more frequently in autumn and winter, but the timing and how bad a season is can change from year to year.

For most people, RSV infection will cause a mild illness with cold-like symptoms, however in some cases it can lead to a more serious illness. Infants, older people and people with lung or heart problems or a weakened immune system are most at risk of serious illness.

Even though many people haven't heard about RSV it's not a new virus. In older Australians there were similar numbers of flu and RSV infections reported in 2023 based on the Australian Government's national disease surveillance data.1

In older adults, RSV can also lead to more serious respiratory infections such as pneumonia and can worsen existing lung and heart health problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or heart failure.

RSV isn't just a one-time thing. People can get RSV multiple times throughout their lives.

Symptoms of RSV

RSV has similar symptoms to flu and COVID-19. It's a highly contagious virus with symptoms taking up to 10 days to appear. In older adults symptoms may include:

  1. Runny nose/sneezing
  2. Sore throat
  3. Cough
  4. Irregular breathing (e.g., rapid, shallow, or difficult)
  5. Wheeze
  6. Aches
  7. Phlegm
  8. Headache
  9. Fever
  10. Chest pain
  11. Fatigue

Individuals should speak to their healthcare professional for advice and management.

Risk factors for serious illness

Age is a significant risk factor for serious RSV, with infants and older adults at higher risk. One study2 showed Australians 65 years or older were over six times more likely to be hospitalised with RSV than younger people aged 5 to 64 years. In older adults RSV infection can lead to a more serious and life-threatening illness, as their bodies disease-fighting ability reduces. Aged care residents are also especially prone to RSV as communal living can aid spread of the virus. In addition, people who have problems with their heart, lungs or immune system are especially vulnerable. Medical conditions that increase the risk of serious RSV illness include:

Lung Disease

e.g. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Asthma

Heart Disease

e.g. Congestive Heart Failure and Coronary Artery Disease


Chronic Kidney or Liver Disease

RSV can also lead to the worsening of these underlying conditions. RSV can be just as serious as the flu. Older adults who suffer from a serious RSV illness can have similar or worse outcomes compared to those with flu. Months after infection, RSV can be associated with decreased social and physical activity.


Measures to reduce the risk of an RSV infection include:
Physical distancing
Covering mouth/nose when coughing or sneezing
Avoiding sharing of eating or drinking materials
Frequently cleaning surfaces and objects that may be contaminated
Isolating infected individuals

Speak to your healthcare professional to discuss your prevention options.

Help protect yourself against RSV

Speak to your healthcare professional about your risk for serious RSV and your prevention options.

Frequently Asked Questions

RSV is spread through small respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, by direct contact such as touching or kissing, or by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching your face without washing your hands first.

RSV is not a new virus, but you may not have heard of it because it is often under diagnosed in adults. RSV symptoms are similar to cold and flu symptoms, so unless you get sick enough to go to the hospital with RSV you are unlikely to be tested. RSV testing may not be widely prioritised for older adults except in some hospital settings.

It’s important to know that there are no specific treatments for RSV. Usually, treatment is supportive with rest, fluids and pain relief, but some people may need additional treatment. Individuals should speak to their healthcare professional for advice and management.

Yes, you can get RSV more than once. Your immune response to RSV decreases over time. This means you can get RSV again at different stages in life, sometimes without even showing symptoms. For older adults, RSV can lead to more serious illness because of the natural changes that happen in the body as we age.

Generally, infected individuals are contagious for up to 10 days after they show symptoms. However, individuals who have ongoing symptoms or weakened immune systems may remain infectious for longer.

Serious RSV can lead to hospitalisation, admission to intensive care or rarely death. These outcomes are more common in infants, older adults, individuals with heart and lung diseases, or those with weakened immune systems. Overall, death due to RSV is rare, but most deaths related to serious RSV occur in those aged 65 and older. RSV infection is also known to worsen existing conditions, such as COPD, asthma and congestive heart failure.


RSV in Australia

A PDF Fact Sheet providing key information about RSV and its impact in Australia.


RSV at Immunisation Coalition

External Link to Immunisation Coalition – RSV disease information

RSV at Healthdirect

External Link to healthdirect – RSV

1NNDSS dataset Australia. 2023 influenza cases in adults aged 60 years and older. Accessed February 2024.

2The study (Saravanos GL, et al. Med J Aust. 2019 Jun;210(10):447-453) was conducted using de-identified national hospitalisation data (86,687 hospitalisations) for the period 1 January 2006 – 31 December 2015 from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare National Hospital Morbidity Database.

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