What You Should Know About the RSV Vaccines

When it comes to seasonal viruses, you’re probably concerned about the flu and COVID. On the other hand, the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV for short, may not be on your radar. But it should be.

Here’s what you need to know about RSV and the vaccines.

[READ The Differences Between RSV, COVID and the Flu Symptoms]

What Is RSV?

RSV is a common respiratory virus that typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, coughing, sneezing and sometimes a fever. However, it can be dangerous in some people, particularly babies, older adults and those with chronic medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease.

In fact, it’s estimated that each year 60,000 to 160,000 older adults in the U.S. are hospitalized and 6,000 to 10,000 die as a result of RSV infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For a long time, it was thought to be a pediatric virus — it’s the leading cause of hospitalizations among infants in the U.S.,” says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “Over the last 20 years, it’s become apparent with improved diagnostic studies that RSV can cause as much serious respiratory illness in older adults as flu. Older adults are at increased risk for complications, such as hospitalization, pneumonia and ending up in the (intensive care unit).”

As with the flu and COVID, you can get repeated infections of RSV throughout your life.

“For older adults with other medical problems, this can be a very dangerous virus. Unlike with influenza, we don’t have antiviral drugs to treat it,” says Dr. Gregory Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases and director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “It’s something to take seriously.”

Fortunately, RSV vaccines are now available for those who are at highest risk of getting severely sick.

[What Are the Symptoms of RSV in Adults?]

What RSV Vaccines Are Available?

To protect those who are at high risk for severe illness or complications from RSV, various immunizations are now available.

Here’s a look at the guidelines for each population:

Older adults

Two RSV vaccines — Pfizer Abrysvo and GSK Arexvy — were approved in 2023 by the Food and Drug Administration for adults ages 60 and older. However, this doesn’t mean all adults in this age group should get it as a matter of routine: It falls under the heading of “shared clinical decision-making,” meaning it’s an issue doctors and patients should discuss together based on a patient’s individual health status, Poland explains.

Your doctor is likely to recommend it if you have any of the following health conditions:

— Lung disease.

— Heart disease.

— Kidney or liver disorder.


— Obesity.

— A weakened immune system from an illness, like leukemia, or you’re taking immune-suppressing medications.

In a 2023 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers gave nearly 25,000 adults ages 60 and older either the RSV vaccine or a placebo. Over the course of seven months, they found that the vaccine was 83% effective at preventing RSV infection and 94% effective against severe RSV infection among older adults. Schaffner says the two vaccines are equally effective.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women between weeks 32 and 36 during September through January can get the maternal Pfizer Abrysvo vaccine to protect their babies. After vaccination, the mother-to-be can pass on antibodies to the baby for protection after birth.

Infants (younger than 8 months)

The CDC recommends an RSV preventive monoclonal antibody immunization, called nirsevimab (Beyfortus), for all infants younger than 8 months who are born during or are entering their first RSV season — if the mother didn’t get the RSV vaccine during the pregnancy or if the baby was born within 14 days of her getting the maternal vaccine. This vaccine is given as a shot into the baby’s thigh muscle.

[READ: Vaccines for Kids and Adults]

When Is the Best Time to Get the Vaccine?

For older adults, the optimal time to get the RSV vaccine is in the late summer or early fall, typically August or September — just before the virus usually starts to circulate in the community. For the sake of convenience, people can get the RSV vaccine at the same time as the flu vaccine or the COVID vaccine.

The RSV season generally goes through March, though the season changes every year.

“Some years, it’s longer or shorter,” says Dr. Lana Dbeibo, an infectious diseases physician at Indiana University.

Right now, it isn’t clear how often the vaccine should be given to people at high risk for severe RSV illness, but “it looks like it will protect for longer than one year,” Schaffner says. More research is underway to determine the optimal frequency.

Common RSV Vaccine Side Effects

The most common side effects of the RSV vaccine include:

— Pain, redness and swelling at the injection site.

— Muscle or joint pain.

— Headaches.

— Fatigue.

— Nausea.



Side effects are typically mild and usually resolve in a day or two.

During the clinical trial for the vaccine, a small number of participants experienced neuroinflammatory reactions, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (a rare disorder that can lead to muscle weakness and sometimes temporary paralysis), or atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm). Researchers are conducting additional studies to investigate whether the vaccines caused these reactions or if they occurred coincidentally.

Are the RSV Vaccines Covered by Insurance?

Yes, the RSV vaccine is usually covered by health insurance, including private plans, Medicare and Medicaid:

Private health insurance. The RSV vaccine is covered by private health insurance plans for adults ages 60 and older. Private health plans are required to cover new vaccine recommendations, including the RSV vaccine, but it’s best to check with your insurance provider first.

Medicare Part D. The RSV vaccine is covered by Medicare Part D for older adults at no cost.

Medicaid. Effective October 1, 2023, Medicaid covers the maternal and infant RSV vaccine for pregnant people and infants under 8 months at no cost.

Other Ways to Protect Yourself

You can take the same precautions to protect yourself from RSV as you do for COVID and the flu.

“When viruses are active in the community, wear a mask when you go indoors (in public settings) and think carefully about when and where you go out,” Schaffner advises. “You may want to stream a movie instead of going to one.”

It’s also smart to stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing and to stay home when you’re sick.

“RSV transmits by touch, so make sure you’re washing your hands regularly,” Dbeibo says. “Clean frequently touched surfaces, like phones and TV remotes, regularly (with a disinfectant).”

More from U.S. News

Does Medicare Cover the Shingles Vaccine?

How to Get Rid of a Cold and the Flu

Best Foods to Eat for a Cold or Flu: Expert Advice

What You Should Know About the RSV Vaccines originally appeared on usnews.com

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