Can adults get RSV too? What to know about the children’s virus surging in Canada

Blood sample with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) positive
RSV is on the rise in Canada. Here's what you need to know about the virus. (Photo via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, is on the rise in Canada.

And while the virus is typically known to affect children, adults can also become infected.

Recently, several U.S. hospitals have reported being "overwhelmed" by a surge of children's RSV cases. Now, Canadian emergency rooms are starting to see an increase in the contagious virus. But how does that affect adults?

In an interview with Yahoo Canada, Laurie Schwartz, an independent respiratory researcher at Healthcare Alliance, says that the current rise in RSV cases is "troubling."

Can adults get RSV?

"It's so contagious, and we usually see it in children because they're in public spaces like schools where it's really easy to spread the virus," explains Schwartz.

"...However, adults can just as easily be carriers of the virus and spread it to their children or someone else's children, and so a downward spiral ensues," she adds. "Many adults may have the virus without knowing it because it hits adults milder, and thus we brush it off as no big deal. But to children, it's more serious."

Women sitting on a couch with a blanket blowing her nose.
Despite being known as a children's virus, RSV can also affect adults too. (Photo via Getty Images)

RSV in Canada: The need-to-know

The Public Health Agency of Canada has noted a high number of cases in much of the country (particularly in Quebec) during a time when many Canadian hospitals are already struggling with long wait times and capacity issues.

The agency's most recent Respiratory Virus Report stated that RSV activity "is above expected levels for this time of year." The cases are only predicted to grow as the country enters its first cold and flu season without COVID-19 measures and restrictions.

Read on to learn more about RSV, its symptoms, and how you might be able to prevent the virus.

Young Girl Sneezing and Blowing Nose With Tissue.
RSV activity "is above expected levels for this time of year," according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. (Photo via Getty Images)

What is RSV?

According to the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases, RSV is a virus that infects the respiratory tract (i.e. the lungs and airways).

Although RSV can affect anyone of any age, it's most common in infants and children. In fact, it's so common that by the age of two, most infants and children have been infected with some form of RSV.

RSV can be life-threatening, especially for infants and older adults with a history of congestive heart failure, asthma or other breathing issues.

However, it's usually a mild condition that goes away on its own. If the virus persists, it can lead to more serious health issues like pneumonia or bronchitis — the inflammation of small airways in the lungs.

"In my career I have seen loads of children with RSV, and for the most part it's fairly manageable. However, that doesn't mean we should relax about it. If a child has never really been sick before, you just never know how they may react to the RSV virus," says Schwartz.

RSV outbreaks tend to begin in the late fall and run until the early spring. However, cases tend to peak during the winter months.

"With cold and flu season on the way, and with less and less people wearing masks, I can absolutely see how RSV cases are surging," adds Schwartz. "...And that goes for adults too, wear your masks, wash your hands, because you might also be a carrier of the virus."

Runny nose. Sick little girl blowing her nose and covering it with handkerchief
Runny nose and sneezing are common symptoms of RSV. (Photo via Getty Images)

What are the symptoms of RSV?

As per the Canadian Lung Association, the RSV virus mostly causes mild cold-like symptoms including runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing and fever.

Additionally, there are warning signs that may mean a patient has a more serious case of RSV. If you or someone you know exhibits any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention right away:

  • Blue lips or fingernails

  • Wheezing

  • Rapid breathing or having troubles breathing

  • Deeper or more frequent coughing

  • Dehydration

  • In infants, difficulty breastfeeding or bottle feeding

"If the case is mild, symptoms usually last one to two weeks. But if coughing is involved, it can take longer to curb the virus," Schwartz explains. "As the symptoms are so similar to the common cold, it can be hard to differentiate RSV from other conditions."

Worried mother giving glass of water to her ill kid. Sick child with high fever laying in bed. Hand on forehead.
One of the only ways to treat RSV is through at-home supportive care, such as rest and hydration. (Photo via Getty Images)

How is RSV treated?

"In most cases, RSV will go away on its own without any special medical treatment," says Schwartz.

Additionally, RSV is not treated with antibiotics because they do not work against viruses. However, if you or your child develops pneumonia or bronchitis, they may need to be treated by a healthcare professional, given oxygen, or take other medicine to open up the airway.

One of the only ways to treat RSV is through at-home supportive care, such as rest and hydration.

How can I prevent RSV?

As RSV tends to occur in various outbreaks during the fall and winter months, it can be difficult to prevent someone from getting the virus — especially children.

Children's settings such as day-care centres and preschools are higher-risk locations, and because the virus can stay on surfaces for hours, it is easily passed from person to person.

That said, there are ways to reduce someone's risk of getting RSV.

  • Make sure you frequently wash their hands with soap and water

  • Do not go out if you feel sick, or avoid people who are sick

  • Do not share items that could easily pass germs, like cups, cutlery or clothing

  • Immediately throw used tissues in the garbage

  • Wear a mask

"There are very basic things that we can do to help prevent RSV, like washing our hands and staying home when feeling unwell, but not everyone puts them into practice," Schwartz says. "This year, more than ever, please take precautionary measures for you and other people's health."

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