During 1975-1995, a total of 2960 healthy adults, 18-60 years of age, were prospectively evaluated for respiratory virus infections. Of these subjects, 211 (7%) acquired respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. The infections were symptomatic in 84% of subjects, involved only the upper respiratory tract in 74%, and included lower respiratory tract symptoms in 26%. Overall, 40% of the subjects were febrile. Lower respiratory tract signs developed in 26%. RSV illnesses were more prolonged than non-RSV respiratory illnesses. Compared with influenza, RSV infections were less frequently associated with fever and headache, but were associated significantly more often with nasal congestion, ear and sinus involvement, and productive cough. Absence from work during the acute phase of the illness resulted from 38% of RSV infections and 66% of influenza cases. The mean duration of RSV illness (9.5 days), however, was significantly longer than that of influenza (6.8 days). The occurrence of annual epidemics of RSV, the virus' potential to reinfect all age groups, and the morbidity associated with these reinfections suggest that RSV infections in working adults may result in appreciable costs for medical visits and absence from work.