The RSV Vaccine: What Parents Need to Know

The RSV Vaccine: What Parents Need to Know

It’s that time of year again, and parents want to know how to protect their children from common respiratory viruses like RSV, COVID, the seasonal flu, and the common cold. In recent years, RSV rates have significantly increased, with newborns and young babies being among the most severely affected. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common virus that can cause severe respiratory illness in infants. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the first RSV vaccine for pregnant individuals, infants, and older adults to protect against severe RSV illness. While the RSV vaccine is currently only available for pregnant women, infants, and people over age 60, thankfully there are several additional ways to lower the risk of contracting RSV.

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that can cause mild cold-like symptoms in most individuals. However, it can be more severe for young infants and older adults. RSV can lead to serious illness, hospitalization, and even death, particularly in high-risk groups. The RSV virus is more common during the fall and winter seasons.

Symptoms of RSV

The symptoms of RSV can vary depending on the age of the individual and their overall health status. In infants and young children, RSV symptoms may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Short periods without breathing (apnea)
  • Trouble eating, drinking, or swallowing
  • Irritability
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased activity

In older children and adults, RSV symptoms are typically mild and may include:

  • Congested or runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Low-grade fever
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache

In severe cases, RSV infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis – inflammation of the small airway passages. Signs and symptoms of severe RSV infection may include:

  • Fever
  • Severe cough
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen (cyanosis)

It is important to seek medical attention if you or your child is having difficulty breathing, not drinking enough fluids, or experiencing worsening symptoms. If you have any questions about RSV or the symptoms of RSV, it is recommended to speak with your healthcare provider.

The RSV Vaccine: Who is Eligible?

To protect against severe RSV disease, the CDC recommends RSV vaccination for pregnant individuals, infants and young children up to 19 months of age, and adults ages 60 and older. A new vaccine, Pfizer’s bivalent RSVpreF vaccine (trade name Abrysvo), when given to pregnant individuals has been shown to reduce the risk of RSV hospitalization for their babies by 57% in the first six months of life. The CDC recommends seasonal administration of one dose of RSV vaccine for pregnant individuals during weeks 32-36 of pregnancy to maximize protection for babies after birth. The maternal RSV vaccine is typically given in September through January. If you live in Alaska, Florida, or outside the continental U.S., talk to your healthcare provider about when RSV season is expected where you live, so that your baby can be protected against RSV disease.

In addition to the RSV vaccine for pregnant individuals, an immunization called nirsevimab (Beyfortus) is recommended for all infants younger than 8 months of age to protect them from RSV. This immunization, a long-acting monoclonal antibody, provides direct protection against RSV to the recipient (passive immunization) and has been shown to reduce the risk of RSV-related hospitalizations and healthcare visits in infants by about 80%. Most infants will likely only need protection from either the maternal RSV vaccine or RSV vaccine for babies, but not both.

According to the CDC, nirsevimab is recommended for all infants younger than age 8 months who are born shortly before or during their first RSV season (typically fall through spring, i.e. October – March) if:

  • The mother did not receive RSV vaccine during pregnancy, or her RSV vaccination status is unknown
  • The baby was born less than 14 days after their mother received a dose of the RSV vaccine

For newborns who are recommended to receive the RSV vaccine, the first RSV vaccine for babies dose is typically given within 1 week of birth.

Nirsevimab is also recommended for young children ages 8-19 months during their second RSV season. Only one dose of nirsevimab is recommended per RSV season, and protection typically lasts at least 5 months.

It is important talk with your healthcare providers about the best options for RSV vaccination based on you or your child’s age and risk factors.

How to Reduce the Risk of Contracting RSV and other Airborne Viruses

To reduce the risk of contracting RSV and other respiratory viruses like COVID, the flu, and the common cold, the following preventive measures are recommended:

  1. Hand Hygiene: Practice regular hand hygiene by washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer as an alternative.
  2. Respiratory Etiquette: Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing, and promptly dispose of used tissues in the trash.
  3. Avoid Close Contact: Limit close contact with individuals who have RSV or other respiratory illnesses. This is especially important for high-risk groups, such as infants and older adults.
  4. Clean Surfaces: Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs, toys, and mobile devices, to reduce the spread of RSV and other germs.
  5. Stay Home When Sick: If you are sick with RSV or another respiratory illness, stay home to prevent the spread of the virus to others.
  6. Wear a Mask: Wearing a mask can provide protection against respiratory infectious diseases, especially when in crowded or shared spaces.
  7. Limit Time in Crowded Spaces: If possible, limit time spent in crowded or shared spaces, such as day care, grocery shopping, or indoor shopping areas, to reduce the risk of RSV exposure.

By following these preventive measures, you can help reduce the risk of contracting and spreading RSV and other respiratory illnesses.

Protect Your Baby from RSV

RSV can have severe consequences for newborns and young infants. Thankfully, we have tools to help protect babies from contracting severe RSV. Maternal vaccination and antibodies given to infants are new tools to help protect babies from RSV, but they aren’t our only defense. Hand washing, avoiding exposure to people with respiratory symptoms, wearing masks, and avoiding crowded areas are all effective ways to protect your baby from RSV. If you do notice any signs of respiratory illness in your infant, seek medical attention right away.